What Do Lenin’s Last Writings Tell Us About Where He Was Headed?

In his last works, Lenin left an outline of a different model for the Soviet Union to the one it came to embrace.

The following is the second and final part of a two-part series on Lenin’s final writings. Read the first part here.

After his second sclerotic stroke in early December, 1922, Lenin knew he hadn’t much longer to live. He was a deeply worried man, for the months leading up to his illness had held unmistakable signs that the Russian revolution was struggling, was indeed disorientated. And now the possibility of his own early incapacitation or death exacerbated his anxiety, because he could not count on his colleagues to see as clearly and as much ahead as he himself could.

At any rate, even if some of them had the same premonitions as Lenin, visualising any of them being able to do enough to stop the drift was not easy. Lenin decided that it was up to him to act. Physically, the two attacks had left him a wreck. But his mind still worked with relentless clarity.

Knowing that he was beyond the pale for political action, he chose the only option still partially open to him: to write, to polemicise, to exhort. (Partially – because he could not hold a pen in his hand and was not even permitted by his doctors to dictate to a secretary for more than a few minutes at a time.) And he plunged into this, his last project, with a burst of energy that surprised even those who knew him well.

Perhaps it also hastened the next stroke – which turned out to be deadlier than the other attacks and crippled him for the rest of his days. But the leader of the October Revolution was not given to counting the personal cost of his efforts – and he could hardly begin to do it now.

The developments that troubled Lenin the most were: the bureaucratisation of the Party apparatus; the increasing centralisation of power in some organs (and some individual members) of the leadership; the consequent undermining of intra-Party democracy; and the steady erosion of a broad, supra-political consensus on key issues of socialist reconstruction.

Underlying all these concerns was his rising frustration that the principal forces of the revolution continued to be stuck in a cultural rut, making it impossible for them to participate meaningfully in consolidating and building on the revolution’s gains. And concurrent to such issues was Lenin’s disquiet over the Party’s possible future leadership: would the leadership hold up under the pressure of the many crises that were bound to visit the Party for many more years, he wondered. He even sensed a possible split when he wasn’t going to be around, and, knowing that it would be a disaster, he resolved to do his best to head it off.

Lenin’s instincts told him that he needed to reach out to the Party’s rank-and-file with his concerns, and he decided to direct to the next (the 12th) Party Congress a series of notes in which he would set out his thoughts on some of these issues. Between December 23 and 29, 1922, when he had recovered just enough strength to speak (albeit haltingly), he dictated to his two secretaries four letters, addressed to the Congress, that made a strong case for significantly increasing the number of Central Committee members “to a few dozen or even a hundred”.

Among other things, Lenin wrote, an expanded Central Committee – the Party’s highest policymaking forum – would “prevent conflicts between small sections of the C.C. from exercising strong influence on the future of the Party”, thus aiding in its stability. The second note went on to elaborate the point.

Also read: Lenin in Urdu: His Every Word Became Poetry

The ‘prime factors in the question of stability’ were clearly identified as Stalin and Trotsky, ‘the two outstanding leaders of the present C.C.’, relations between whom ‘make up the greater part of the danger of a split’. A broad-based committee of ‘50 or 100 members’ could significantly disperse the likely tensions and facilitate cohesive functioning.

This note, dictated on December 24/25, also provided Lenin’s appraisal of the personal qualities of the Party’s most important leaders. Trotsky was ‘distinguished… by outstanding ability’ and was ‘perhaps the most capable man in the present C.C.’, but he had a penchant for ‘the purely administrative side of the work’ and was often inclined to display ‘excessive self-assurance’.

V.I. Lenin in a wheelchair. Photo: M.I. Ulyanova, The State Museum of Russian Political History, Public Domain/M. I. Ulyanova (1878–1937)/Wikimedia Commons

As for Zinoviev and Kamenev, ‘the October episode (when they had broken ranks with Lenin and others and repudiated the plans for the takeover of power) was .. no accident’ but ‘the blame for it (should not be) laid on them personally’. Bukharin, besides being ‘a most valuable and major theorist of the party’, was also ‘the favourite of the whole Party’, but there was ‘something scholastic about him’ and ‘his theoretical views can be classified as fully Marxist only with great reserve’. Pyatakov, ‘a man of outstanding will and outstanding ability’, yet showed ‘too much zeal.. for the administrative side of the work to be relied upon in a serious political matter’.

Finally Stalin who, ‘having become General Secretary, has unlimited authority concentrated in his hands’, but Lenin was not sure that Stalin ‘will always be capable of using that authority with sufficient caution’.  It is clear that Lenin was treading carefully here, and his comrades would need to read between the lines to make a determination of which of ‘the two outstanding leaders’ was better qualified to lead the Party in Lenin’s absence (or if a collective leadership structure was preferable instead).

Also read: Leon Trotsky, the Socialist Who Dreamt of the Full Human Life Even at His Nadir

But then, something dramatic happened soon after this appraisal (we will soon see what), prompting Lenin to dictate on January 4, 1923 a fresh addition to the note of December 24/25 in which he pretty much skewers the General Secretary:

“Stalin is too rude and this defect…becomes intolerable in a General Secretary. That is why I suggest that the comrades think about a way of removing Stalin from that post and appoint another man in his stead who…(is) more tolerant, more loyal, more polite and more considerate to the comrades, less capricious, etc.”

This stinging indictment came out of Lenin’s belated realisation that Stalin, as the Commissar for Nationalities, was dealing with Russia’s ethnic borderlands, more particularly Georgia, with coarse insensitivity. Stalin was sponsoring a constitution for the (proposed) union of Soviet republics which would, in effect, restore Russia to its Tsarist glory days and deprive the national minorities of many of the rights guaranteed to them by the Revolution. (When Georgian communists demurred, they were intimidated and even roughed up, prompting them to resign from their positions en masse.)

Stalin, accompanied by government security department of the OGPU, Sverdlov square Moscow, 1930. Photo: State museum of political history of Russia/Georgy Georgievich Petrusov/Public domain/Wikimedia Commons

Stalin had managed to keep the sick Lenin out of the loop on the discussions preparatory to the constitution. Having got wind of these developments, however, Lenin commissioned his own fact-finding mission, and once he had all the facts before him, called out the scandalous project of deifying the ‘Great-Russian chauvinist, in substance a rascal and a bully’. In a longish note – entitled The Question of Nationalities and again addressed to the Party Congress – dictated over two days, December 30 and 31, 1922 – Lenin launched a scalding attack on Stalin and his accomplices:

“I think that Stalin’s haste and his infatuation with pure administration, together with his spite against the so-called ‘nationalist-socialists’ (Stalin’s characterisation of the leaders of minority nations who demanded a degree of autonomy within the proposed union) played a fatal role here. In politics spite generally plays the basest of roles.”

In the concluding part of this note, Lenin added: “The political responsibility for this campaign of truly Great-Russian chauvinism must .. be laid on Stalin and Dzerzhinsky (Stalin’s ally – the head of the secret police).”

Also read: Lenin and His Discontents: An Interview With Tariq Ali

Apart from the specificities of the criticisms in both this case and the one relating to the Party leadership, what is noteworthy is a strong commitment to first principles: fair play, justice, accommodations to the relatively weak and encouragement for the traditionally excluded population segments to shed inhibitions and occupy the commanding heights of the Soviet system. On the Georgian question, Lenin insists on re-articulating the first principles again and again:

…(I)nternationalism on the part of oppressors or ‘great’ nations, as they are called (though they are great only in their violence, only great as bullies), must consist not only in the observance of the formal equality of nations but even in an inequality of the oppressor nation, the ‘great’ nation, that must make up for the inequality which obtains in actual practice.

Likewise, the new entrants to the Party’s Central Committee, Lenin was convinced, needed to be “mainly workers of a lower stratum than those promoted in the last five years to work in Soviet bodies; they must be people closer to the rank-and-file workers and peasants, who … do not fall into the category of direct or indirect exploiters.” (Emphasis added.)

And this would, Lenin believed, both help train many more potential leaders and reorient the leadership towards grassroots concerns and sensibilities. This, in turn, would prevent leadership forums from being closed, elitist clubs. In another set of letters to the Congress, also dictated between December 27 and 29, Lenin agreed to Trotsky’s suggestion that the State Planning Commission be vested with quasi-judicial powers.

Lev (Leon) Trotsky, Vladimir Lenin and Lev Kamenev (L-R), in Moscow. Photo: TASS/Public domain/Wikimedia Commons

At the same time, Lenin emphasised the need for the Commission to be led by a genuine man of science whose attention would not be taken up with the purely administrative aspects of the Commission’s work.

Only a Commission freed from all bureaucratic controls could deliver to the Soviet system what it most needed: efficiency, imagination, and an unwavering focus on priorities. Lenin made no secret of his strong disapproval of those leaders who tended ‘to exaggerate the administrative side’ of the Commission’s functioning.

Having set down, for the benefit of the wider Party forums, his thoughts on these three immediate concerns, Lenin next turned his attention to some other areas which called for sustained and imaginative interventions at multiple levels. Beginning January 2, 1923, and over the next month and a half, he dictated five essays that looked variously at education, a cooperatives-based model for transitioning to a socialist economy, the functioning of RABKRIN (or,  ‘The Workers’ and Peasants’ Inspection’), the need to revamp the oversight structures in respect of important State organs, and the standard Menshevik critique of the Russian revolution.

Together, these articles are a valuable pointer to how Lenin’s thinking on what a post-revolutionary society should look like was evolving over the last few weeks of his active life. What is remarkable about this thinking is its complete freedom from inflexibility and dogmatism, its open disdain for sanctimoniousness and humbug.

Ever the realist, Lenin makes no bones about the fact that he thinks quite poorly about what official Party propaganda often claimed to have achieved. He surely knew what the Revolution had accomplished, but he hated the idea of resting on his oars – for so much more remained to be done.

Thus, in the essay captioned On Education published on January 4, 1923, he flags the tardy progress in literacy in post-revolutionary Russia: number of literates per thousand of the population had improved over 1897-1920 merely to 319 from 223. He goes on to write witheringly that

“(a)t a time when we hold forth on proletarian culture…facts and figures revel that we are in a very bad way even as far as bourgeois culture is concerned…and that even compared with Tsarist times (1897), our progress has been far too slow. This should serve as a stern warning and reproach to those who have been soaring in the empyreal heights of ‘proletarian culture’…”

One of the last photographs of Lenin. Taken in Gorki after May 15, 1923. Beside him are his sister Anna Ilyinichna Yelizarova-Ulyanova and one of his doctors A. M. Kozhevnikov. Photo: Maria Ulyanova/Public domain/Wikimedia Commons.

He then gets down to brass tacks: cut back on fund outlays on governmental expenditure and step up spending on education; create an army of well-trained and well-paid teachers; narrow the educational gap between town and country and do so ‘without the pre-conceived notion of implanting communism in the rural districts… (for) that at the present time would be harmful, instead of useful, to the cause’.

The article On Cooperation, written on January 4 and 6 argues that the transition to socialism in the countryside needed to evolve around “civilised cooperators”. The peasantry should be drafted into the cooperative movement through sustained governmental support for a ‘cultural revolution’, which would effect a reorganisation of the machinery of the State.

Lenin rules out all coercion in this project, a warning that subsequent leaderships failed to heed when collectivisation of the farming sector was forced upon the peasantry.

January 16 saw Lenin dictating Our Revolution, a critique of the Menshevik leader Sukhanov’s article on how the Russian revolution might have been ‘before its time’, or before the objective conditions had sufficiently ‘ripened’ for a socialist transformation. Lenin energetically contests this claim, stating that not using the revolutionary opportunity in October would have amounted to a capitulation to the bourgeoisie.

One does, however, get the sense that Lenin was going over this debate primarily to put his own mind at ease: he was reassuring himself that the Bolsheviks had done the right thing by Russia.

The January 23 essay titled How we should reorganise the Workers’ and Peasants’ Inspection deals at length with the inadequacies and the bloated infrastructure of the RABKRIN, a commissariat under Stalin begun in 1920 for non-partisan oversight of the work of the apex Party committees.

Lenin explains how the bureaucratic apparatus of much of the Soviet State (and particularly of the RABKRIN) was nearly identical to the Tsarist government’s, save for a slightly ‘touched-up surface’. He recommends the combining of the RABKRIN with the Central Control Commission and the recruiting of a substantial number of peasants and workers to the set-up.

He also suggests that RABKRIN extend its oversight to the Politburo as well. The emphasis here is on democratising the Inspection.

On March 2, 1923, when the Pravda ran Lenin’s last essay Better Fewer, But Better, it did so after sitting on the copy for three weeks. The dithering was understandable, considering that early in the essay, Lenin had launched into a blistering attack on the Soviet State:

Our state apparatus is so deplorable, not to say wretched, that we must think carefully how to combat its defects, bearing in mind that these defects are rooted in the past, which, although it has been overthrown, has not been overcome…

Lenin was deploring the cultural deficit in the Soviet system which showed up both in the ‘ridiculously inadequate’ fund of education and knowledge characterising it and the inability and unwillingness to acknowledge those inadequacies; worse, an unseemly ‘boastfulness’ and complete lack of ‘sound scepticism’. He excoriated the penchant for ‘too rapid progress’ which induced  people in leadership positions to gloss over imperfections, errors and failures.

Also read: The Last Weeks of Valdimir Lenin’s Life

What was essential was ‘at all costs…first, to learn, secondly, to learn, and thirdly, to learn, and then see to it that learning shall not remain a dead letter’. What Lenin was pitching for was to scale back expectations of very rapid progress, work from the grassroots up to remodel the available human material, focus on quality rather than numbers, and realign aims with realistic possibilities.

And he was categorical that, to accomplish these tasks, the Soviet government needed to purge itself of everything superfluous and wasteful. In this effort, Lenin hoped, a repurposed and reoriented RABKRIN might be a great facilitator, provided it was positioned as an apolitical government organ with sweeping powers to oversee the highest Party apparatuses. It is no surprise that the Pravda hesitated so much before it put this article out in the public domain.

Lenin’s letters to the Congress on the leadership question were suppressed by Stalin. They were to come to light 33 years later, after Stalin’s death. However, the letters on the Georgian question obliged Stalin to retreat from his maximalist position and come up with a constitution more in tune with the Revolution’s first principles.

The operative parts of the great essays were either ignored or given a quiet burial, even as Russia steadily degenerated into an autocracy. But in their searching scrutiny of the organs of Soviet power and their ruthless honesty of purpose, they remain a tribute to Lenin’s percipience. They also prove two things beyond all doubt.

One, that it is fatuous to claim that Stalin was Lenin’s natural successor. And two, that the path that Lenin had embarked upon could only have led to what the Soviet Union eventually transmuted into. His last work tells us clearly enough that, had not illness tragically cut short his life, Lenin might have struck out on a course replete with other possibilities.

Anjan Basu can be reached at basuanjan52@gmail.com.