Thursday 23 June 2022, by Robert Paris

C.L.R. James


THOUGH BEFORE VERY LONG THE SOVIET UNION WAS TO be the only Workers’ State in the world, the international Socialist revolution had begun. As time passed and the isolation of the Soviet Union became clear, it might have been thought that the dictatorship of the proletariat in Russia enforced by the situation inside the country was premature. Difficult and dangerous as was its position, liable to collapse at any time, yet the Soviet Union fitted into the basis of Lenin’s first consideration, the economic condition of world Capitalism. He had during the war worked it out very carefully in his little book, Imperialism, the Last Stage of Capitalism, one of his most important theoretical works.


In it he traces the inevitable development of Capitalism into huge monopolies, the dominant and decisive feature of world economy today. These monopolies gradually control the whole economic and financial life of the great Capitalist countries. It is a characteristic of Capitalism to separate the ownership of capital from its application to production, financial capital from industrial, the rentier who lives on his income from the entrepreneur and those who share in the management of capital. Imperialism is that highest stage of Capitalism in which this separation reaches vast proportions. Capital and finance tend to greater and greater amalgamation. The supremacy of finance capital over all other forms means the rule of the investor and of the financial oligarchy on a national scale, and on the international, the crystallisation of a small number of financially powerful States out of the general body. In the old type of Capitalism, that of free competition, the export of goods was the most typical feature. In the modern Capitalism of monopolies the typical feature is the export of capital. The surplus of capital is not put aside to raise the standard of living of the masses; this would mean a decrease of profits. The surplus capital is used to increase profits by the export of capital abroad to backward countries where capital is scarce, wages low, land and raw materials cheap. In proportion as the surplus of capital in each country increases, the competition between the monopolies for more colonies and greater spheres of influence increases. Finance capital has to divide up the world, not from original sin, but because the concentration of capital makes this method of getting profit a necessity. New imperialisms like Japan and America emerge. The competition between imperialism and imperialism goes on peacefully at first, first by industrial and commercial and then by political negotiation; this competition becomes more acute and ends in war, war being only a continuation of politics by other means. By 1914 the world had been divided up. Nothing was now possible but a redivision, and that redivision could take place only according to the strength of the competing imperialisms. Capitalism had reached its limit. Henceforth it would be imperialist war after imperialist war, until the destruction and slaughter or the economic chaos and social misery which would inevitably follow such wars would drive the international proletariat section by section to overthrow Capitalism and build international Socialism. The waste of armaments, the colossal destruction involved in unavoidable imperialist wars, the evils these brought in their train, were the unmistakable signs of the breakdown of the old system and the necessity for the new. As always the change would be accomplished by violent revolution, this time on an international scale. As Lenin was to say later, the new era which was opening was the era of imperialist wars and proletarian revolution.

The Soviet Union, viewed as a beginning, was therefore historically justifiable. If Capitalism proved to be still progressive, then the Soviet Union was premature andwould undoubtedly fail. It was simple Marxism that the new Society could not exist for any length of time unless the old had reached its limits. But the conflict was not a conflict of entities already fixed. Capitalism in decay might be still powerful enough to overthrow the first Socialist State, whence it would gain a longer ease of life. Or the Soviet State might so establish itself and organise the international proletariat as to strike great blows at Capitalism. All this would depend on the opportunities that the development of history presented and the use men made of them.


Yet in the struggle for survival, the weakness and isolation of the workers’ State might well seem insuperable barriers to Socialism. It was not only defence against imperialist countries; it was a question of the internal economy of the country. Lenin at first hoped for at least one advanced Capitalist economy to become Socialist. As he had reminded his readers in one of his early articles during the war: “It is impossible to pass from Capitalism to Socialism without breaking national frameworks, as it was impossible to pass from Feudalism to Capitalism without adopting the idea of a nation.” During 1917, 1918 and 1919 he did confidently expect the revolution in Western Europe, particularly in Germany. While he was in hiding during the summer and autumn of 1917 he, as usual, was very methodically clearing his mind (and the minds of his followers) about the immediate future in his book, The State and Revolution. It was under this expectation that he had made the notes before the March revolution, and there is a reference to them in one of the early Letters from Afar. So that while in January he contemplated the possibility of not seeing the revolution in his lifetime, he was getting everything ready in case it came.

Whereas formerly his writing had been directed towards the achievement of a successful insurrection, now he is concerned with what will happen after – the forming of the dictatorship of the proletariat. Marx and Engels had always considered this problem from the point of view that this task would be begun by the proletariat of one of the advanced countries, and it is from this basis that Lenin, expecting his revolution in one or more advanced countries besides Russia, prepares his notes. It is characteristic that the final draft of the book, though written while he was preparing for the Russian Revolution, devotes seven chapters to advanced countries. Only in the last two chapters did he intend to deal with Russia, and events prevented him.

An advanced country meant a country highly industrialised, and therefore with a proletariat urban and agricultural, but chiefly urban, which, with the petty bourgeoisie closest to it, constituted a majority of society. A majority was necessary because it was this class, working through its representatives, which had to remould society. The first thing was to smash the bourgeois State machinery. On the experience of the Paris Commune Marx had seen that the proletariat could not use the bourgeois State as a means of introducing Socialism. Its main purpose, however disguised, however modified by the organised force of the working class, was to keep the working poor in subjection. Its army, police and prisons, were mainly for the protection of the rich against the poor. As we have seen Lenin recognised that in England there was complete political liberty, but this was only on the surface. In reality democracy was democracy for the small minority, the rich. When the rich had been dispossessed a new type of State was wanted – a State which, being a State, would be the instrument of class domination, the executive committee of the ruling class, only this time the ruling class would be the working class. The content of this rule by the workers would vary as the rule of the rich varies from democratic Switzerland to Fascist Germany. The form of the new State, however, Lenin saw in the Soviet of workers’ and peasants’ deputies. The absence of wealthy property owners would make for real political equality among the proletariat, a real majority of the people. There would be among them real freedom of the Press, and an intimate control over their political representatives. There was to be no army set up against the people, the people would be armed in a national militia. The first business of this new State organisation was to dispossess the rich, and suppress their inevitable attempts at restoration. But he stated many times that this was essentially a subordinate task. Socialism did not aim at substituting the rule of the poor for the rich, justified as this might be on the score of a majority. The real task of the dictatorship of the proletariat was to increase production and create such abundance that first the petty-bourgeoisie would be drawn, on the basis of their own experience, to support the proletariat, and by a series of economic transformations extending over many years ultimately the new system would be so obviously superior to the old that there would be no danger of a restoration to a system of society based upon the private ownership of the means of production. The whole system would stand or fall by the increased productivity of labour.

“This expropriation of the means of production will make a gigantic development of the productive forces possible. And seeing how incredibly, even now, Capitalism retards this development, how much progress could be made even on the basis of modern technique at the level it has reached, we have a right to say, with the fullest confidence, that the expropriation of the capitalists will inevitably result in a gigantic development of the productive forces of human society.”

If Lenin returned today, he would not waste a minute on Stalin’s propaganda, but would calculate the income and expenditure per head of the population and from it grasp at once the social and political character of the regime.

Neither Marx nor Engels, Lenin nor Trotsky, cultivated any illusions as to the difficulties of the task. They looked forward with supreme confidence to the gradual change of human society and the whole psychology of mankind, but very strictly in relationship to the development of the forces of production. It will have been noted that in the passage quoted above Lenin underlined the word possible.

As Marx carefully explained (and Lenin quoted it with emphasis) this mere seizure of the property of the bourgeoisie and the maintenance of the State-power did not mean Socialism. Bourgeois ideas of right were not entirely abolished, but “only in part, only in proportion to the economic transformation so far attained, i.e. only in respect of the means of production. ‘Bourgeois right’ recognises them as the private property of separate individuals. Socialism converts them into common property. To that extent, and to that extent alone, does bourgeois right disappear.” It was a fundamental postulate of Marx that, whatever the political system, the law and justice of no society can rise higher than the technical level of production.

There was, however, another aspect of this development of production to which too little attention has been paid – the part the workers were to play in it. The great value of the Soviet form of State was not only the nearness of government to the masses, but the opportunity it gave them to enter into the main business of any society – production. Ultimately the standard of education, of fitness for the complicated duties of citizenship, rested on the level of production. As Lenin wrote later, the discipline of slave society was the whip, the discipline of capitalist society was hunger. “The Communist organisation of labour – to which Socialism is the first step – is based upon the free and conscious discipline of the workers themselves who have thrown off the yoke of landlords and Capitalists." The creative capacity of the masses – he believed in it as no other leader of the workers ever did. That creative capacity had hitherto been seen only in revolution. The Soviet system based on the masses in the factories was to organise this creativeness not only for purpose of government but also for production, linking the two closer and closer together until ultimately the all-embracing nature of production by the whole of society rendered the State superfluous. Thus the inherent development of the productive forces which was “possible” under collective ownership would be immensely stimulated by the direct participation of workers in the business of accounting and control. The higher the productivity of labour, the greater would be the leisure, the education, the capacity for service of the worker, and his emancipation from bureaucracy, leading in turn to a still greater productivity of labour and increasing opportunities. It was from this interaction, the development of the productive forces and the continually increasing active participation and capacity for participation in that work by the millions, that would be evolved the Socialist society. “The narrow horizon of bourgeois rights” which compels one to calculate, with the hardheartedness of a Shylock, whether he has not worked half an hour more than another, whether he is not getting less pay than another – this narrow horizon will then be left behind. There will then be no need for any exact calculation by society of the quantity of products to be distributed to each of its members. Each would take freely ‘according to his needs.’

It was under those conditions with every member of society doing his share of work, with war and its huge unproductive expenditure abolished by the international character of production, with society reconstructed on the basis of such abundance as to minimize and abolish the competition for goods which breeds struggle, it was under such conditions only, that the State, the instrument of class domination, in this case of working class domination, would gradually become superfluous and wither away. There would not be any one class to oppress another, for classes would have been abolished. People would behave decently and the few abnormalities (for the most part the product of a grossly unequal society) could be dealt with by society without any apparatus of prisons and police, but by the mere good sense and general will of the community, as they were dealt with in the only known form of classless society, primitive Communism.

When would this take place? “We do not and cannot know,” words which Lenin very frequently used. It was not going to come smoothly. The very name Permanent Revolution implies the constant recurrence of great social and political upheavals. But Marxists did not make the world. They found it as it is. And their policy was the only policy because based on the decisive factor, the inescapable development of production. Meanwhile the greatest enemy to the development of the productive forces was Capitalism. And when Capitalism was conquered and the economic revolution began, the greatest enemy to the creative capacity of the masses was bureaucracy. And yet as we have seen, in the most advanced stages of capitalist society, owing to the fact that production barely exceeded the minimum requirements of the whole population, some such administrative group was inevitable. Lenin was quite aware of this, but writing in August 1917 and having the world revolution in mind he was confident.


By 1920, however, it was clear that support from an advanced proletarian State in Europe was not coming for some time, and a task which would have strained the energies of the most advanced proletariat in the world had now to be faced by one of the most backward with an economy that was almost in ruins. The Russian proletariat was too weak to accomplish the building of Socialism. It was a small minority of the population, between two and three million workers and their families, so that what would have been in Germany the rule of a majority meant the political domination of a minority in Russia. There was no help for this, neither then nor for many years to come. The capacity to lead the nation in every sphere, the discipline that Lenin counted on so much “was not born of good intentions.” It sprang “from the material conditions of great Capitalist production and from these alone. Without these conditions it is inconceivable. The power destined to turn these conditions to account is an historical class created, organised, trained and hardened by Capitalism.” Under the best of conditions this was a small and backward class in Russia. And in 1920 the proletariat was at its last gasp. Output was only 18 per cent of the pre-war level, the output of pig-iron was 2.5 per cent. Then in 1921, to add to the destruction caused by the war, the two revolutions, the allied blockade, the civil war, came one of the most terrible famines in the whole history of Russia. It is in the weakness of the proletariat and these terrible conditions that we have to look for the disappointment that the workings of the Soviet system brought to Lenin and other Bolsheviks. The Capitalist world outside sneered, the Social Democrats thundered at the absence of democracy even among the workers in Russia. Even inside Russia a section of the Communist Party at the Eleventh Congress brought forward a resolution reminding the party that “according to the law the Trade Unions participate in all the local and central organs of industrial management.” Lenin, who saw it far more clearly than they, rebuked them with grave words:

“We know that Capitalist production has been built up by decades with the assistance of every advanced country in the world. Have we fallen back into infancy to think that at the time of the greatest need and impoverishment of the country in which the workers constitute a minority, in a country with the proletarian vanguard worn out and bled white, and with a mass of peasants, we will be able to complete this process so quickly ... a year or two of rest from starvation, a year or two of regular supply of fuel so that the factories should work, and we will get a hundred times more support from the working class and no one among its ranks doubts or can doubt this. At present we do not get this support, not because we do not want it ... but we know that the need is desperate, that we have hunger and poverty everywhere and this constantly leads to passiveness. Let us not fear to call an evil and a calamity by their real names. That is what prevents the use of energy among the masses.”

But the lack of energy among the masses meant the increase of bureaucracy.

Bureaucratic control from above by the party was wholly due to the necessity of holding the power. It was to some degree forced upon it. Lenin applied the only antidote: a rigid, an almost fanatical honesty before the masses, of which the quoted extract is an example from hundreds. Not only the party but the proletariat, small and dispirited as it was, had to be kept aware of the real dangers of the State and the necessary measures of guarding against them. And the greatest danger to Socialist Russia was Capitalism, not only outside, but the seeds of it inside – the peasantry. It is still the danger today, with the peasant disguised as collective farmer.

The peasant had fought for his land, he had fought against the Tsarist regime side by side with the Bolsheviks, he had submitted to the premature Socialism known as War Communism, forced on the cautious Lenin by the pressure of war. But the moment the civil war was over and the land was safe, the peasant first of all refused to produce and then revolted. Democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry, or Permanent Revolution, Lenin and Trotsky had all through the years long foreseen these troubles. In 1920 Trotsky, whose work took him about the country, had observed that the economy of the country could stand the forced requisition no longer and had proposed the first outlines of the New Economic Policy. The Central Committee rejected the proposal. [1] Now Lenin abolished the system of requisition, allowed the peasant to pay a tax in kind and by degrees gave him the right to trade. And with the restoration of the right to trade Capitalism was on its way again. Lenin knew that, until the revolution in the west, there had to be an alliance between proletariat and peasantry, but he had no illusions whatever as to the nature of the conflict between these two classes. In April 1920 a year before the N.E.P. and while the system of War Communism was still in being, he let the Russians know what to expect. The peasants would be grateful for the emancipation given them by the workers,

“but on the other hand under the conditions of commodity production the peasants remain owners, property holders; every instance of the sale of bread in the open market, every sack of flour or other food carried from place to place by private traders, every speculative deal means the restitution of commodity production and therefore the restitution of Capitalism. The overthrow of Capitalism involved and brought about the emancipation of the peasantry, but against this overthrow there was the petty bourgeoisie – in old Russia undoubtedly a large class. The peasantry remain private owners as far as their production is concerned, and are establishing new capitalistic relations. These are the principal features of our economic position, and it is this that gives rise to those absurd speeches emanating from men who fail to understand the real position; speeches on liberty, equality and democracy. We are conducting a class struggle and our aim is to abolish classes; so long as there still exist two classes, those of peasants and workers, socialism cannot be realised, and an irreconcilable struggle goes on incessantly.”

If this was so in 1920 under War Communism, the N.E.P., which established free trading, would intensify the danger in geometrical progression. But Lenin was not afraid of it – at first. The Socialist proletariat held the great industries, the transport system, the banks. And in the struggle between the development of peasant Capitalism and the development of Socialist industry; the party representing the proletariat had the enormous advantage of controlling the State-power. State-power cannot permanently defeat economic development but it can exercise an immense influence, and the Russian proletariat had absolute control, perhaps too much, Lenin warned. The Soviet constitution gave one Soviet representative to 25,000 workers, but one to 125,000 peasants, thus ensuring the dominance of the proletariat. With energy, economy and flexibility industry could be improved, the balance could be held, and the standard of life raised until help came from the revolution in the West.

Everything, until the revolution in the West. But while so many know of the change, of equal importance for the building of Socialism was the method of the change.

In the spring of 1921, Lenin proposed the N.E.P. and called it by its name – a retreat. In October he weighed up the question and stated that it was necessary to retreat still further, passing from the first concessions to the creation of purchases, of sales, and of monetary circulation regulated by the State.

“To conceal from oneself, from the working class, from the masses, that in the economic domain, in the Spring of 1921 and at present, too, in the Spring–Winter of 1921–22, We are still continuing to retreat, is to condemn ourselves to complete unconsciousness, is to be devoid of the courage to face the situation squarely. Under such conditions, work and struggle would be impossible.”

How many in Western Europe can understand these words? Certainly those who gloss over Stalin’s monumental falsifications do not understand the elements of Leninism.

On March 6, 1922, he said that he hoped the retreat was completed and that the party congress would be able to say so officially in the name of the party. The congress presented the resolution and every party member, every worker in the State, every peasant knew the exact position and could take his share in the measures that the party advocated for the progress of the country. With the enormous responsibility which lay on the party exercising the dictatorship of the proletariat, it had to keep itself clean like a sword. Speaking of the retreat in 1921, Lenin said:

“It is not the defeat which is so dangerous as the fear of admitting one’s defeat, the fear of drawing from it all the conclusions ... Our strength in the past was, as it will remain in the future, that we can take the heaviest defeats into account with perfect coolness, learning from their experience what must be modified in our activity. That is why it is necessary to speak candidly. This is vital and important not alone for the purpose of theoretical correctness, but also from the practical point of view. We cannot learn to solve the problems of today by new methods if yesterday’s experience has not made us open our eyes in order to see wherein the old methods were at fault.”

He viewed every aspect of the new State in the same sternly critical way. At first he defended the Soviet regime, but when as time passed he began to see its shortcomings, he exposed them to the masses. No severer or more consistent criticisms of Soviet Government were made by any Social Democrat. He said over and over again that it was bad, that there was a thin surface of democracy above, but that below it was the same old Tsarist bureaucracy over again. He pointed out the reasons, the ignorance and backwardness of Russia, far behind the Capitalist countries. Even in Lenin’s time, the Soviets were being deprived of power by the party and the bureaucracy. Lenin preached ceaselessly of the main reason – the backwardness of the people. There could not be democracy, far less Socialism, in such a country, and without democracy there could be no Socialism. The Russians had first to learn, secondly to learn, and thirdly to learn, not proletarian art and proletarian culture and such like nonsense on which he poured a contemptuous scorn, but simply to read and write. The Communist Party reflected this backwardness and added to its incompetence an arrogance which he continually denounced before the masses. For him this Communist arrogance was the chief danger, next came corruption and thirdly the ignorance of the people. The internal remedy was increase of production. No sentimentality was to stand in the way of this. He advocated dismissal from high posts of Communists who had suffered years of imprisonment under Tsarism for the revolution, and the substitution for them of competent bourgeois. He pointed out the Communist lack of culture in comparison with the bourgeoisie, the necessity to use these bourgeois, at high salaries (the secret police would deal with them if they were in any way disloyal), to help the Soviet State until it had trained its own Communist personnel.

He could see the bureaucracy and the corruption growing around him. The party would have to fight them. No party member could draw more than 270 roubles, the pay of the skilled workmen. Thus he strove to keep the self-seekers out of the party. And by precept and example he showed the party the Socialist way, facing the truth fearlessly before the masses and encouraging them to feel that the State was theirs. His great error – and he saw it too late – was to have taken too lightly that filching of their power from the people in the Soviets. Yet the underlying remedy for all this, the pressing necessity for every aspect of life in the Soviet Union, was the restoration of Soviet economy. Under his direction the party set itself to this task. But while he did so and called on the country to bend all its energies to this work, he lost no opportunity of telling the party and the workers and peasants that not only the external safety but the internal development of the State towards Socialism depended in the last analysis upon the international proletariat. From every conceivable angle, with unwavering insistence he never let them forget it.


At first his emphasis was on the impossibility of the two systems, Capitalism and Socialism, existing side by side.

In March 1918 he told the Seventh All-Russian Congress of Soviets: “International Imperialism ... could in no case and under no conditions live side by side with the Soviet Republic.” And a year later, at the Eighth Congress, “We live not in a State but in a system of States, and the existence of the Soviet Republic side by side with imperialist States for an extended period is unthinkable.” The danger, however, was not only external but internal.

“In a number of writings, in all our speeches and in our Press, we have emphasised the fact that this is now the position in Russia, that in Russia we have a minority of industrial workers and a vast majority of small agriculturalists. In such a country a social revolution can be definitely successful only under two conditions. The first condition is that it be supported by a modern social revolution in one of the several advanced countries. The other condition is an agreement between the proletariat which is exercising its dictatorship, or which holds the power of the State in its hands, and the majority of the peasant population.

“We know that only an agreement with the peasantry can save the Socialist revolution in Russia until such time as the revolution takes place in other countries.” [2]

When the revolution was seen to be further away than had been expected he shifted the argument to the international character of modern production. Socialist or Capitalist, Russia was tied to world economy. At the Eighth Congress of the Soviets in December, 1920 he told the delegates: “Whilst our Soviet Russia remains a solitary suburb of the whole Capitalist world, during that time to think of our complete economic independence and the disappearance of all danger would be an utterly ridiculous fantastry and utopianism.” And not only was Russia tied to world production, but the collective system in isolated backward Russia was at a disadvantage against even Capitalist anarchy on an international scale. For the time being the Russian State could keep out foreign goods and protect backward Russian industry by the rigid control of everything exported or imported, the monopoly of foreign trade. But this was an unnatural device. The ultimate test of a new civilisation was the higher productivity of labour in comparison with the old.

“We are confronted with a test which is being prepared by the Russian and international market, to which we are subordinate, with which we are bound up, from which we cannot break away. This is a serious test for here they may beat us both economically and politically.”

And in the last article he ever wrote:

“Shall we succeed in maintaining ourselves with our petty peasant production, with our ruined condition, until the Capitalist countries of Western Europe complete their development to Socialism? Such is the question which faces us at this moment. We are not civilised enough to pass directly to Socialism though we have the political premises for it.” [3]

We could quote dozens more of the same type. Why was he so insistent? It was because he knew that ideas are not a force until they are seized upon by the masses, and knew the difficulty of maintaining the international Socialist conception and the pitfalls that awaited any deviation from it. While he lived he held the party there, and the Russian proletariat followed faithfully. [4] But in July 1922 Lenin fell ill and was away from work until October. When he came back he noted in a draft for a speech: “There is no evil without good. I have been sitting quiet for half-a-year and looking on ‘from the side-lines’.” What he had seen was not only the degeneration of the Soviet system, but also the degeneration of the party. And if that were not checked then the dictatorship of the proletariat was in grave peril. From his sick-bed he set himself to fight it – the last and, without a doubt, what would have proved the greatest battle of his life. The next two or three years were critical for the Soviet Union and remain the most difficult years on which to form a judgment.


No more vicious mistake in Socialist theory can be made than the too prevalent habit of using the term dictatorship of the proletariat as synonymous with the personal dictatorship of a Lenin or worse still of a Stalin. Mussolini’s regime in Italy, the democracy in the Scandinavian countries, are equally the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie.

The dictatorship of the proletariat is a formula whose evaluation depends at a given time in a given country upon the relationship between the classes on a national and international scale. We have seen the national and international reasons for the harsh form it of necessity assumed in Russia between 1918 and 1922. The dictatorship of the proletariat in Russia, Germany and France, all Socialist at the same time, would result, if by any conceivable chance a Capitalist Britain should survive for any length of time, in such Fascist tyranny in Britain that not only the working class but all except the Fascists themselves and bourgeois would have less freedom that street-sweeper in the emancipated States. The political content of the dictatorship in any particular country rests on the rate and successes of the economic transition to Socialism, which in turn depends upon the natural and industrial resources of the Socialist country, its relationship abroad with other countries, Socialist or Capitalist – in fact the whole international background against which any political form in any European or other highly developed State must be judged today. While ultimately it is the economic situation and the class-relationship resting on this which is the deciding factor, yet the State-power exercises a powerful influence. The regulator of all these relationships in a Socialist State is the Communist Party which controls the State-power and, in close association with the representatives of the international proletariat, governs the country in the interests of international Socialism. Until the abolition of classes a Communist Party must function. It is composed of the ablest and most trustworthy elements of the working-class movement in each country, some Marxist intellectuals, but the majority workers from the bench, in order to keep the party in the closest contact with the working class through which, not from inherent virtue but from its role in production, the regeneration of society is to be attained. Though the party will in the last analysis reflect the general stage of development of the country, yet its leadership can, as Lenin’s case proves so conclusively, rise to heights of character and insight which will help to maintain the party at a high level and accomplish tasks of worldwide importance; or it can, as within a few months of Lenin’s illness, drag the party down until it is nothing but the docile instrument of a degrading tyranny. The precise relationship between dominating individuals and social forces, always a difficult thing to determine, is exceptionally important here. For the moment it is enough to say that we do not accept the view that the degeneration of the Bolshevik Party was inevitable.


In the years before October 1917 Lenin’s insistence on the discipline necessary for illegal work and armed insurrection, then the ruin of the war, the civil war and military intervention, the temporary failure of the world revolution, the relative weakness of the Russian proletariat, had driven the Communist Party of Russia steadily along the path of becoming almost a military organisation ruled from above. Yet in the most desperate times of the civil war Lenin had insisted on maintaining what we can see today to have been an astonishing freedom of discussion. He dominated, but only by his personal authority. Immediately the civil war was over he initiated a resolution calling for party democracy, or as it was euphemistically called workers’ democracy. He knew that it was necessary to curtail the freedom he had promised in Russia, to hold on at all costs for the sake of the international revolution. Yet the party had to remain a free instrument; with the enormous power that it wielded ossification would be a disaster. How far could there be full and continued freedom in the party if there was restricted political freedom in the working-class as a whole? This was the danger of which Rosa Luxemburg was always aware in her struggle for a full democracy against Lenin’s centralism. Lenin in his resolution stated that with the same energy and decisiveness with which the party had militarised itself it should now set to work to have free democracy within itself. But in 1921 came the rebellion at Kronstadt and all the troubles that led to the N.E.P. For a moment the situation was more dangerous than ever before, and for the first time in nearly twenty years Lenin had to forbid factions or organised groups in the party. The resolution on democracy within the party remained in abeyance. Now after his return from his illness he was appalled to find that the party was being corrupted from above as well as from below.

The head of the bureaucratic fungus was Stalin, now General Secretary of the party, Commissar for Nationalities, and Commissar of the Workers’ & Peasants’ Inspection. He dominated the party machine. In the vast, backward and unsettled country, party members and officials of the Soviet State had great power, and by a system of appointing from above, unparalleled even in the harshest times of the civil war, he had built up in the organisational apparatus of the party a powerful support for himself. He was also in close relationship with Djerzhinsky, the head of the all-powerful secret police. Lenin’s authority was no sooner impaired by illness than he found himself in constant conflict with Stalin.

The monopoly of foreign trade was the only safeguard of the Soviet State against the higher productive system of Capitalism. To this day Russian production is so backward that if goods from Germany, Britain or the U.S.A. were allowed in, they would ruin Russian economy. Yet as soon as Lenin was away Stalin, Zinoviev and Kamenev, as incompetent in economics as in organising insurrection, introduced important exceptions into this monopoly. Trotsky opposed them unsuccessfully. Lenin, as always when he found himself in difficulties, turned to Trotsky, and asked him to defend the position at the party conference in April. Trotsky did so and it was established that the monopoly of foreign trade is “one of the pillars of the Socialist dictatorship in the circumstances of capitalist encirclement,” the phrasing being a clear indication that in those days no one in the Soviet Union dreamt of surpassing capitalist productivity of labour while the workers’ State was surrounded by world Capitalism.

On December 25, Lenin wrote the famous Testament [5] in which he characterises Stalin. “Comrade Stalin, having become General Secretary, has concentrated an enormous power in his hands; and I am not sure that he always knows how to use it with sufficient caution.” Then came the Georgian affair and Lenin’s swift realisation that the party, if it were to save itself, must get rid of Stalin. Stalin and Djerzhinsky had been entrusted with the mission of smoothing out the difficulties which were being experienced in the admission of the smaller republics to the U.S.S.R. Stalin, sent to Georgia, had behaved with such brutality as to call forth the strongest censure from Lenin. Ordjonikidze (today Commissar of Heavy Industry and one of chief supporters of the Stalinist regime) had continued Stalin’s policy in Georgia and had even struck a Georgian comrade. “We live in a sea of illegality” was one of the first letters the sick Lenin had written to the Politbureau, and now he could see where the chief danger was coming from. He demanded that Ordjonikidze should be expelled from the party for two years. That such a thing could happen showed “to what a morass we have fallen.” He asked that the persecuted subject nationalities should be protected from the Diejimordes (tyrants and brutes). The tyrants and brutes were Stalin and Djerzhinsky. To the Georgians he wrote: “I am working for you with all my heart” ... and while, for the time being careful in public statements, in his private correspondence he showed the anger and distrust he felt for the coarse, ignorant, and immoral Georgian ...

“Internationalism from the side of the oppressing, or so-called great nations (although they are great only in their violations), must consist in observing not only a formal equality, but an equality which would destroy upon their side that inequality which is created factually in real life. The hastiness and administrative impulsiveness of Stalin played a fatal role here, and also his spite against the notorious ‘social-chauvinism’; spite in general plays the worst possible role in politics. It behoves us to hold Stalin and Djerzhinsky politically responsible for this genuine great Russian nationalistic campaign.” [6]

He wrote these letters in the last days of December, and on January 4 he added a note to the Testament, more restrained in tone but unmistakable in intent.

“Postscript: Stalin is too rude, and this fault, entirely supportable in relations among us Communists, becomes insupportable in the office of General Secretary. Therefore I propose to the comrades to find a way to remove Stalin from that position and appoint yet 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.”

Once again he turned to Trotsky. Enclosing all his notes he wrote:

“That affair (the Georgian affair) is now under investigation at the hands of Stalin and Djerzhinsky. I cannot rely upon their impartiality, indeed just the contrary. If you would agree to undertake its defence, I could be at rest."


The last three months of his working life Lenin spent in a vain attempt to reorganise the party machinery for the fight against Stalin and bureaucratic corruption. He began as always from below. On December 26 he recommended that the Central Control Committee should consist chiefly of workers in close touch with the masses and not those who have had a long period of Soviet employment “because these workers have already acquired certain traditions and prejudices which are just the ones we want to struggle against.” And having decided that Stalin should go, he in January took the struggle into the open but still with caution. The Government represented “to a very large degree a survival of the past ... It has only been slightly painted up on top and in all the other respects it represents the most typically old of our old government machinery.” The party must concentrate its best forces and, as it did in the period of the most dangerous times of the civil war, find new forces “where our dictatorship had its deepest roots.” The reference to the civil war showed how seriously he estimated the position and knew what so few Communists know, that the greater the danger the greater the necessity of mobilising the great masses of the people. It was the personal power of the brutal and disloyal General Secretary which had to be curbed first. Lenin therefore proposed to elect between 75 and 100 new members of the Central Control Committee from among the workers and peasants, who should be given full rights as members of the Central Committee. The Workers’ and Peasants’ Inspection (the organisation Stalin controlled) should be reduced and the two bodies fused. In all these arrangements there is as far as we can see today only one serious error. He gave his authority to the idea of fusing the party with the State apparatus. Even with the party as it might have been this plan was dangerous, and we have little doubt that with the increasing growth of the Soviet bureaucracy Lenin would have changed his mind about this, as he so frequently did about many things. But all this meant the end of Stalin’s use of his position to bribe people to support him. Stalin, already disgraced as Commissar of Nationalities, attempted to use his chief political argument – suppression of the article. One of Stalin’s confederates, Kuibyshev, proposed that a special copy of Pravda should be printed and shown to Lenin to pacify him. Trotsky opposed this so vigorously that Stalin had to give way and the article appeared in Pravda of January 15. Lenin then decided to destroy Stalin and showed how serious he considered the position by taking the struggle into the open.

In his last and perhaps the very finest article he ever wrote [7] he combined a profound warning of the necessity of getting the very best elements and training them carefully for government with a series of bitter attacks on Stalin’s Workers’ and Peasants’ Inspection.

“The People’s Commissariat of Inspection does not enjoy even a shadow of authority at present. It is well known that there are no institutions working worse than our Commissariat of Inspection and that under the modern conditions there is nothing to expect from this Commissariat.”

And, “Why indeed form a Commissariat that will work without any efficiency, so that it will not arouse any confidence and the work will not enjoy the least prestige?” and

“Our new Commissariat of Inspection will leave behind the quality which the French call pruderie, that is ridiculous affectation, of trying to look important, which plays very much into the hands of our bureaucracy, both in the Soviets and in the party. It should be said parenthetically that we have a bureaucracy not only in the Soviet institutions but in the party institutions as well.”

And then, as was his habit, almost abruptly, he concluded the article by a long dissertation relating the matter in hand to the international Socialist revolution, ending with the quotation we have given above. [8]

“Vladimir Ilyich is preparing a bomb against Stalin at the Congress,” wrote Lenin’s secretary. He wrote a letter, his last, breaking off all comradely relations with Stalin. But he was seized by another attack and he could not speak at the congress. His last strength had been spent in a vain endeavour to drive from the high councils and confidence of the party the man who concentrated in himself all the evil tendencies that Lenin feared for the future. In those few critical and uncertain months that Lenin lay ill Stalin and his clique used their only weapon – the consolidation of their personal hold by the intensive bureaucratisation of the party apparatus. It was in the beginning nothing else but a struggle for power. [9] Even before Lenin died in January 1924 power was in the hands of Stalin, whom Lenin feared most, and Zinoviev and Kamenev, whom in his Testament he had told the party never to trust. These three, the Troika, ruled Russia and ruling Russia controlled the Communist International. We have seen how in March 1917 Stalin and Kamenev had switched the Bolshevik Party on to a road that would have imperiled the Russian Revolution, which had been served only by the timely appearance of Lenin. We shall see them acting in the identical way when faced with the German Revolution in October.

But in October 1923 Lenin lay on his bed, dying, and, though neither he nor anyone else knew it, the defeat of the German Revolution in that month heralded the death of international Socialism in his party, its creed of twenty-five years.


[1] This was the origin of Trotsky’s insistence on organizing the Trade Unions as organs of the State. If War Communism continued, he foresaw collapse unless the unions were knit tightly into the fabric of the Soviet State. The moment Lenin agreed to N.E.P., Trotsky accepted Lenin’s Trade Union policy.

[2] V.I. Lenin, The Food Tax, a speech delivered to the Tenth Congress of the Russian C.P. on March 15, 1921.

[3] Better Less but Better, Pravda, April 4, 1923. The writer has used an MSS. translation. Many of the most important articles by Lenin, written after 1918, have to be tracked down in obscure publications or translated afresh. The present Soviet regime dare not publish them or, when it does so, truncates them.

[4] In face of the mass of evidence quoted above it is clear that as a rule when Lenin said Socialism he meant that highly developed form of society based on a productivity of labour far beyond Capitalism, and impossible in the isolated economy of Soviet Russia. Today, however, Stalin claims the final victory of Socialism. Having to explain away the gross inequalities existing under this Socialism, he propounds that by Socialism Lenin meant collective ownership and planned economy only. The thesis is the usual Stalinist falsification, and Stalin himself, as can be seen from the photograph reproduced after the Preface, used the word for years in precisely the sense that Lenin so often used it. But it should be noted that Marx and Engels and Lenin did use the words Socialism and Communism interchangeably, at other times making a distinction between Communism as the highest stage of Socialism. For an able study on the use of the words at different times by Marx, Engels and Lenin see The Socialist Standard, August 1936. For the most plausible version of the Stalinist falsification, see The Theory and Practice of Socialism, by John Strachey, p. 113.

[5] There are references to it by Stalin himself in the International Press Correspondence of November 17, 1927, and in The Truth about Trotsky, by R.F. Andrews, London 1934, p. 68.

[6] Cp. The Theory and Practice of Socialism, by John Strachey, p. 430. “The way in which the Soviet Union has known how to reconcile the claims for cultural, educational and administrative economy made by the subject peoples of the Tsarist Empire, without sacrificing any of its essential strength and unity, has been one of its greatest triumphs. This work has been, above all, inspired by Stalin.” Stalin, claiming to hate social-chauvinism i.e. excessive nationalism was as harsh to the nationalities as any Great Russian.

[7] Better Less, but Better.

[8] Page 26.

[9] The best short treatment of this last period of Lenin’s life can be found in The Suppressed Testament of Lenin, by Leon Trotsky, Pioneer Publishers, New York. See also Since Lenin Died, by Max Eastman, London 1925, a well-documented survey; and Staline, by Boris Souvarine, Paris 1935, Chapter VII, a book with an anarchist bias against the dictatorship of the proletariat but irreproachably documented, very fair, and full of insight.

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