Convention Discussion: Lenin & Stalin, different people

BY: | June 5, 2014

Submitted by Emile Schepers, Virginia

We have not come to grips with the Stalin issue.  Confusion is created by the effort by two different sets of people to EQUATE STALIN WITH LENIN, or at least obfuscate the important differences between them.

Those who wish to “rehabilitate Stalin” and restore him to a place of adulation in communist thinking equate Stalin with Lenin so as to raise the prestige of the former by association with the latter.  

Those who wish to pull down Lenin and reduce the influence of his ideas equate him with Stalin for the opposite reason, namely to claim that every horrible thing that Stalin did was Lenin’s fault or grew directly out of Lenin’s ideas.

In fact there were significant and growing differences between the two which had reached the point of an impending political and personal break just when Lenin suffered a major stroke that removed him from the political scene.  (Lenin died on January 21, 1924, but had been out of action for a long time).

Lenin had originally formed a positive opinion of Stalin, whom he met in 1913.  But by 1922, Lenin had become worried by Stalin’s take on the national question.  As People’s Commissar of Nationalities, Stalin played a major role in shaping Soviet nationalities policies.  Lenin came to believe that Stalin was paying lip service to the rights of national minorities, and that the model of a federated Soviet state Stalin was working toward was much too centralized.   Lenin wanted the constituent republics of the U.S.S.R. to be authentic structural equals who coordinated their policies through the central government, but only subordinated them in the areas of foreign policy, defense and a few other things.  Lenin had frequently been scathingly critical of what he saw as the tendency of the imperial arrogance of Tsarist officialdom toward non-Russians to continue under the Soviet government.

Lenin’s government actively promoted the development of minority languages and cultures in the different republics, albeit all within a strictly socialist framework.  Ironically, one of the results of Lenin’s stance was “Ukrainianization”-ironically because the right wing nationalist thugs in Ukraine have been attacking and destroying statues of Lenin.

In addition, Lenin was worried about Stalin’s administrative style, which he considered too crude and authoritarian.  A major blowup was caused by the news which Lenin got about brutal behavior of Stalin and his friend and fellow Georgian, Sergo Ordzonikidze  toward some Georgian communists.  Other incidents, including one in which Stalin insulted Lenin’s wife, Nadezhda Krupskaya, on the telephone using barnyard language, led to Lenin calling, in a letter to the Bolshevik leadership, for Stalin to be removed as General Secretary of the party.

But then came the final, completely debilitating stroke (March 10, 1923), and Trotsky ended up as the point man to push for Stalin’s removal.  But Trotsky, a talented agitator but not a skilful organizer, choked and didn’t act on Lenin’s wishes, so Stalin was not stopped from consolidating his power.

Yes, the cruelties of Stalin’s regime have been exaggerated by anti-communist propagandists.   He can’t have killed 40 million people; at the time he supposedly did that the whole population of the USSR was only 160 to 170 million and the entire system of production would have ground to a halt if half that number had been killed or even merely jailed.   A more credible figure for executions for all crimes (common as well as political) during the period of Stalin’s ascendency would probably be around 800,000.  But that is still a huge execution rate, and a large proportion of the executions were of Communist Party members.  Such policies cannot be condoned and surely must have had negative effects on the development of Soviet society.  After Stalin’s death, a large proportion of these people were themselves “rehabilitated”, liberated if they were still alive; their reputations sometimes restored if not.

Yes, I know that die-hard admirers of Stalin claim that everything against their hero, including Lenin’s last communications, were lies and forgeries.  But I don’t buy it.  There were too many witnesses to these disputes.  

For these reasons, I argue that Lenin and Stalin should be de-coupled in our minds and discourse.  Furthermore, we should continue discussion on the role of Stalin and his allies in the formation of the U.S.S.R. and not dance around the issue.   The claim that Leninism inexorably led to Stalinism should not be accepted uncritically either.  

But for now, Lenin’s reputation rests on these pillars:

  • His idea that to bring about a transition to socialism, a new kind of political party was needed, more tightly organized and focused than had been previously the case in the socialist movement.  (“What is to be Done”, 1902)
  • His analysis of imperialism, and his insight that for the socialist cause to triumph in developed countries, imperialism must be defeated in the less developed countries. (“Imperialism, the Highest  Stage of Capitalism” 1916)
  • His concept of the state as a mechanism of class rule (*State and Revolution, 1917).
  • His dissection of the problem of ultra-leftism (“Left Wing Communism, an Infantile Disorder” 1920)  

All of these things, to greater or lesser degree, need criticism, modification and updating. However that could be said also of the works of Marx and Engels, or anybody.  But these are valuable ideas which every socialist should be familiar with.  This constant harping on the idea of getting rid of Leninism or Marxism-Leninism is harmful to our party.

The views and opinions expressed in the Convention Discussion are those of the author alone. The Communist Party is publishing these views as a service to encourage discussion and debate. Those views do not necessarily reflect the views of the Communist Party, its leading bodies or staff members. The CPUSA Constitution, Program, and all its existing policies remain in effect during the Convention discussion period and during the Convention.

For details about the convention, visit the Convention homepage
To contribute to the discussion, visit the Convention Discussion webpage

30th National Convention, Communist Party USA
Chicago | June 13-15, 2014


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