Civil War, Lenin and the Rise of Stalin


Civil War, Lenin and the Rise of Stalin

Red recruiting poster

Hey you, have you volunteered?
(A communist army poster)



Anti-Communist poster

Anti-Communist propaganda:
General Trotsky as a Jewish devil-beast


General Denikin

General Anton Denikin, anti-Bolshevik commander-in-chief devoted to restoring law and civil liberties in the areas under his control. He would be in France in 1940 when the Germans invaded, and he would refuse to cooperate with them.


Admiral Kolchak

Admiral Alexander Kolchak, considered responsible for the brutality, theft, rape and murder in areas nominally under his control.






Bolsheviks Win the Civil War

fter the attempt on Lenin’s life in August 1918, the Bolsheviks struck against their real and imagined enemies. They called for death to counter-revolutionaries, and they rounded up and executed eight hundred people. Facing attack from armies that had arisen against their rule, the Bolsheviks were resorting to what some people called an iron dictatorship. This included complete control over the economy, which was put under military discipline. In the fall of 1918, trade became a state monopoly. The death penalty was re-established in the army. Earlier Trotsky and some other revolutionaries had favored its abolition, seeing it as something from tsarist times, but Lenin had favored it, asking how you can have a revolution without shooting people.

The Bolsheviks drafted people into their armies, and Trotsky welded the new Red army into a disciplined fighting force. And in their fight against the anti-Bolshevik armies the Bolsheviks benefited from having let the peasants confiscate lands. Poor peasants with confiscated lands feared that those who crushed the Bolsheviks would force a return of these lands.

Many of the officers in the anti-Bolshevik armies favored monarchy and the sanctity of ownership of property. Their announced purpose of warring against the Bolsheviks was to reconvene the Constituent Assembly and to enforce the laws of the Provisional Government. But in warring against the Bolsheviks, they cared little about winning hearts and minds. They ignored propaganda. These were men unskilled in politics and unmindful that war was an extension of politics. They wanted no part of politics. They made the same mistake that German military planners had made before World War I: they put violence ahead of everything else. And they drove ethnic peoples on the borders of Bolshevik controlled areas into supporting the Bolsheviks against them.

Trotsky’s Red Army had various advantages over the anti-Bolshevik armies. One advantage was in  human resources. Many who were drafted into the Red Army had little love for the Bolsheviks, and desertions from the army were high, but the Red Army had enough men who believed that they were fighting to change the world and who wanted to defend the revolution against counter-revolution. Another advantage for the Bolsheviks was in military hardware. They were in possession of military hardware left by the imperial army, and in the area they controlled were defense industries. And the Bolsheviks had the advantage of holding a central position. The anti-Bolshevik armies, on the other hand, were scattered and their moves uncoordinated, and they were dependent on what little outside powers gave them in money, supplies and instructors.

The first major threat to the Bolsheviks came from Siberia, in the mid-year of 1919, by an army led by Alexander Kolchak, a former admiral in the tsar’s navy. Pillage and murder were perpetrated by those under the command of one of Kolchak’s officers: Colonel Sephanov. Hundreds of peasants and townspeople were murdered. And Kolchak’s army executed people they found unenthusiastic for their cause. The anti-Bolshevik armies from other directions were not making attacks simultaneous with Kolchak’s offensives, and Kolchak’s forces could not hold against the full weight of the Red Army. The British began a diversionary offensive in the north, but it was too late to help. The Red Army drove Kolchak’s forces back, and Kolchak’s army turned into a rabble of individuals solely concerned with their own survival – officers, wives and mistresses, hordes of soldiers and civilians, rushing eastward.

From the south, but too late to be much help to Kolchak’s army, an anti-Bolshevik force 150,000 strong, led by a former tsarist commander, Anton Denikin, drove the Bolsheviks out of the Caucasus region. Late in 1919 Denikin’s army came within two hundred miles of Moscow. Simultaneously an army fromEstonia, with British tanks, led by another former tsarist army commander, Yudenich, pushed within ten miles of Petrograd (St. Petersburg). The Bolshevik forces rallied and threw Yudenich’s forces back. They forced Denikin’s army into retreat, and Denikin’s army fell to pieces. And continuing their drive southward, in early 1920 the Bolsheviks overran Rostov (at the Black Sea).

In 1920, the Red Army pushed into the Ukraine, undoing losses agreed to at Brest-Litovsk. Poland’s new leaders wished to re-establish their old empire, and they sent armies into the Ukraine – using war material from France and financing the operation with money from a United States food loan. The Poles took Kiev in May 1920. The Bolsheviks retook Kiev in June and sent the Polish army back in a rout. By mid-August, the Bolsheviks had pushed westward to the outskirts ofWarsaw – causing concern in Britain and France. But within days, Poland’s forces rallied, and now it was their turn to send the over-extended Bolshevik forces back.

In August 1920, the Bolsheviks signed peace agreements with Estonia, Finlandand Latvia, and in October they signed an armistice with the Poles, freeing their armies to finish off their enemies on their southern front. There they drove against the army that had been under Denikin and was now under the Baron Peter Wrangel, a former commander of Cossacks during World War I. In November, Wrangel’s army fell apart and fled with civilians to Constantinople. This marked the end of Russia’s civil war.

Moscow still lacked a settlement with Poland. Devastated by the civil war and desiring peace more than did the Poles, the Bolsheviks signed a treaty with Poland on terms favorable to the Poles. The border between the Soviet Union and Poland placed four million Ukrainians and Byelorussians under Polish rule. A huge strip of land that had been a part of tsarist Russia was lost to the Poles – the area that the Bolsheviks were to retake with the Hitler-Stalin pact in 1939.

British Intellectuals Visit Moscow

In 1920 there was much debate among intellectuals in the West concerning the Bolshevik Revolution. The celebrated British writer, H. G. Wells, a socialist, met Lenin in 1920 and found him to be “without a trace of hauteur” and a man who laughed a lot, but a laugh he described as grim. Wells did not care for what he believed was the narrow-minded rigidity of Lenin’s ideology, including Lenin’s belief that private property was the root of all evil. And Wells was critical of the Bolshevik’s ruthlessness and criticized them for being dictatorial. He pointed out privileges that were already accruing to Communist Party personnel. He stated that if the Bolsheviks remained in power he expected them to continue to be despotic. But, believing that most things change, he expressed hoped that the Soviet regime would change for the better. Trotsky described Wells as bourgeois and condescending. Winston Churchill took issue with Wells, saying something about leopards not changing their spots, and Well’s responded with a verbal attack on Churchill’s past.

Also visiting the Soviet Union and Lenin in 1920 was Lord Bertrand Russell, the British philosopher and mathematician, and socialist, and one of the few British intellectuals who from the start opposed British involvement in World War I. After returning to England from Russia, Russell published a small book in which he described Britain’s labor movement as having done much toward making a “first-class” war against the Bolsheviks impossible. He mentioned the sympathy for the revolution among the British Left and within Britain’s labor movement, and he mentioned the hope for a better world that the Bolsheviks had created. But he asserted that Bolshevism was a “tragic delusion.” The hopes that inspire communism are as admirable, he wrote, as are those instilled by the Sermon on the Mount, and they are held as fanatically and likely to do as much harm. Bolshevism, he wrote, had supplied a new religion out of a mood of disillusionment and despair. Russell wrote of a “Marxian gospel” replacing the Christian martyr’s hopes of Paradise.

Russell wrote that western socialists who had visited Russia had “seen fit to suppress the harsher features of the present regime.” He acknowledged that some of Bolshevism’s harshness was a response to attacks from its enemies, but he stated that this was no excuse for many of the Soviet regime’s brutalities. He wrote that in Russia he found some Bolsheviks kind. In Russia during the civil war, Russell wrote of an enthusiastic audience cheering itself hoarse and giving Trotsky a standing ovation when Trotsky put in an appearance at the Opera, and of Trotsky asking for and getting great hurrahs from the audience for the brave soldiers fighting for the revolution at the front. Describing his interview with the Russian writer Gorky, who had supported revolution, Russell wrote that Gorky was ill and obviously heartbroken. Gorky, reported Russell, still supported the Soviet government, not because it was faultless but because he believed that possible alternatives were worse. Gorky begged me, wrote Russell, that “in anything I might say about Russia, always to emphasize what Russia has suffered.”

Lenin against Left-wing Communism

By 1920, Lenin’s hope for a revolution outside of Russia had faded. Only in Hungary had other Communists taken power, Hungary becoming a Soviet republic in March 1919. But Hungary’s Communist Revolution was short-lived, its leaders fleeing for their lives, and the Red terror during their reign leaving many Hungarians outraged.

But in 1920, Lenin felt relief that the civil war was over, and he believed that with their survival he and the Bolsheviks had shown the way to make revolution. “We now possess quite considerable international experience,” he wrote. He added that “certain fundamental features of our revolution have a significance that is not local…but international.” Lenin was preparing a pamphlet to be distributed at the Second Congress of the Comintern, that was meeting in Moscow in April 1920,  a pamphlet on what to avoid in working toward revolution, a work calledLeft-wing Communism – an Infantile Disorder.

Bolshevism, wrote Lenin in his pamphlet, had risen on a solid foundation of theory, and the Bolshevik revolution, he added, could not have succeeded without “iron discipline.” He defined the revolution as the creation of “the working class” led by the Bolsheviks. He labeled Social Democratic critics of the Bolsheviks as opportunistic riff-raff. Then he went to the subject of practical tactics and the need to compromise at times. There was, he wrote, good compromises and bad compromises, and he criticized what he called the stupid attempt at purity by “left-wing communists” to dismiss compromise entirely.

Lenin had in mind the tactics of communists in Germany, who had a slogan “no compromises” and wanted to divorce their movement  from labor unions dominated by the Social Democrats. In his pamphlet, Lenin lectured his German comrades on the need for patience and for working within progressive organizations that were not devoted to revolution. You work with and alongside people, he wrote, showing the way, eventually winning your neighbor workers to your side. He criticized the German communists for believing that they should not participate in “bourgeois parliaments,” pointing out that it was not true that parliamentary governments were obsolete in the West.

Looking at Great Britain, Lenin observed that it had no Communist Party as yet. But, he wrote, “there is a fresh, broad, powerful and rapidly growing communist movement among the workers, which justifies the best hopes.” He pointed to an article written by Sylvia Pankhurst entitled “Towards a Communist Party” and the squabble in Britain over whether a Communist Party there should affiliate with the old trade union movement and the Labour Party. Lenin wrote again in favor of working with “progressive” organizations, predicting that Britain’s workers would eventually become disillusioned with their present leaders. He wrote that British communists should first help beat those on their political Right. Then, he added, the workers will learn that the moderates are “good for nothings” and will turn to communist leadership.

Lenin described what he thought was the “fundamental law” of his and future socialist revolutions. The first step, according to Lenin, was the creation of a “proletarian vanguard” – in other words, Bolshevik activists. To throw only the vanguard into the decisive battle before the entire working class was either supporting the vanguard or “at least sympathetically neutral towards it would be,” he wrote, “not merely foolish but criminal.”

In all countries, wrote Lenin, “communism is becoming steeled and is growing. Its roots are so deep,” he claimed, that “persecution does not weaken or debilitate it, but only strengthens it.” Lenin spoke of a contagion among working people for a new socialist order. World revolution, he wrote, has been “powerfully stimulated and accelerated by the horrors, vileness and abominations of the world imperialist war and by the hopelessness of the situation created by it.” And revolution, he wrote, “is developing in scope and depth with such splendid rapidity, with such a wonderful variety of changing forms, and with an instructive practical refutation of all doctinairism, that there is every reason to hope for a rapid and complete recovery of the international communist movement.”

Lenin was dreaming, but he was now to exercise some of the pragmatism that he professed to believe in. In March 1921, his government signed a trade agreement with Britain. That same year, the Soviet Union signed trade agreements with Germany, Norway and Austria. The Soviet Union was able to establish diplomatic relations with industrialized nations other than the United States, and trade with these nations increased, benefiting the Soviet Union.

The Soviet regime was eager to appear responsible and worthy of credit in international finance, and it paid its bills. The Comintern continued to support communists abroad. It extended its activities into the colonies of the powers with whom the Soviet Union was trading, and into China. And the Soviet government excused itself by claiming that the Comintern was independent. 

Instability and Lenin’s New Economic Policy

Membership in the Soviet Union’s Communist Party reached 730,000 in 1921, tripling since 1919 – while in 1921 the Soviet Union was still suffering from famine. The Soviet Union’s population dropped another 3.8 million that year. And the population was to drop another 1.9 million in early 1922. Lenin and the Bolsheviks allowed Herbert Hoover’s American Relief Association to distribute food in Russia, which would save millions of lives.

Lenin saw the relief as a necessity but suspected that the relief agency had counter-revolutionary aims. The Bolsheviks kept a suspicious eye on the relief effort, and one Bolshevik, Joseph Stalin, tried to levy transport charges against the relief effort. When the Americans started to return home, Stalin had some of those Russians who had been working with the Americans – former Mensheviks – arrested. Herbert Hoover was indignant, and he intervened and managed to save them from execution.

Bolshevik authoritarianism and the hardship that Russia was still suffering alienated the sailors at the Kronstadt naval base just outside Petrograd. These were original supporters of the Bolshevik coup, described as the revolution’s “pride and joy.”  In March 1921, they rebelled and called for “real Soviet power.” The Kronstadt sailors were hopelessly outnumbered, and after several days of fighting and the spilling of a lot of blood, the Red Army, led by a former tsarist general and Trotsky, crushed the rebellion and chased the surviving rebels across the border into Finland.

The Kronstadt rebellion moved Lenin to abandon the rigorous economic policies of War Communism. Russia’s economy under Tsar Nicholas II had benefited from an abundance of foreign investment, but since then Russia had been suffering from capital outflow. Lenin was eager to advance the nation economically, and he allowed some free markets to reappear. This became known as the New Economic Policy (NEP). State owned industry remained, but some private commerce and small-scale industries were allowed. And the peasants, of course, were allowed to continue owning land. The Soviet government abolished the forcible confiscation of grain. It taxed the peasants but allowed them to sell their surplus grain on the new, opened market.

Lenin was not abandoning his commitment to socialism or communism. Lenin saw his New Economic Policy as a breathing space. Capitalism, he said, must come to the revolution’s aid so that he could destroy it later. Lenin wanted to gradually expand the socialist sector of the economy in competition with economy’s private sector.

Allowing a return of free enterprise brought relief to the country and an upward swing in economic activity. In Moscow new restaurants appeared, and on the streets of Moscow shiny cabs were beginning to appear, and private cars, carrying the bourgeoisie and beautiful women in mink coats to places that common people could not afford. The gaiety, spending and displays of wealth were reminiscent of that of the middle and upper classes in Paris just after revolution died there late in the eighteenth century. And some rank and file Bolsheviks disapproved.

Joseph Stalin’s Growing Influence

In 1922, Lenin was incapacitated by a stroke, and his likely successor was thought to be Leon Trotsky, the leader second to Lenin in the coup of 1917 and the leader of the Red Army. Among the Bolsheviks another bad analogy was being circulated, one that compared Trotsky to the French general, Napoleon Bonaparte, who some believed had ended the French Revolution, and therefore Trotsky was a danger to the Russian Revolution.

The Communist Party was governed by a five-man politburo: Lenin, Trotsky, Kamenev, Zinoviev and Joseph Stalin. The Communists were supposed to be comrades, but Stalin, Kamenev and Zinoviev disliked Trotsky, and Trotsky did not care for the intellects of any of these three.

Trotsky and his supporters were being outvoted in the Central Committee – a body of communists in the hundreds. In theory the Central Committee had power over the Politburo. It was the Central Committee that was supposed to decide who would sit on the Politburo, The Central Committee, whose membership in the hundreds was appointed by a Party Congress, which was supposed to meet every five years for that purpose. Party Congresses consisted of delegates from Communist Party membership in general, which in 1921 numbered 700,000 and rising. Trotsky and his supporters were concerned about democracy within the Communist Party. Trotsky complained that people were being chosen to positions within the Party from above rather than by their peers and that this was making the Party hierarchical. He complained that the party hierarchy addressed its rank and file only with commands and discouraged independent views.

Trotsky and his supporters also complained about Communist Party mismanagement, and they complained that the Party was ignoring the needs of industrial workers – who theoretically were the heart of the social revolution. Zinoviev and Kamenev claimed that Trotsky’s charges were “anti-Marxist deviations.” Zinoviev went so far as to call for Trotsky’s arrest.

In the eyes of many members of the Central Committee, the clash between Trotsky, Zinoviev and Kamenev left Stalin appearing as a patient man of reason. Stalin appeared as a man who had little interest in anything other than the revolution and the betterment of the working class. While other Politburo members held more glamorous duties, Stalin had taken on the job of General Secretary of the Communist Party – seemingly mere bureaucratic work. In contrast, Trotsky was the War Commissar, Zinoviev was head of the Comintern, and Kamenev was the Party’s leading writer. Unlike Stalin, these three had intellectual pretensions, and each was writing his memoir.

Modest though Stalin’s position appeared to be, to the younger rank and file Bolsheviks Stalin, now in his early forties, appeared to be one of the glorious Party old-timers. And, as General Secretary of the Party, Stalin was adding to his admirers and supporters by making numerous appointments to positions within the Party.

Stalin, had usually deferred to Lenin’s opinions, but while Lenin remained partially incapacitated from his stroke, Stalin clashed with Lenin over the issue of nationalities within the Soviet Union – Ukrainians, Georgians, Byelorussians, Armenians, Azerbaijanis, to name a few. By 1922, Lenin’s position on nationalities was that the Revolution should rule wherever conquest was possible, but he rationalized this with the notion that the conquered areas were to have a federated equality within a “Union of Soviet Republics.” Stalin preferred absorbing the nationalities into the existing governmental structure without any such federated equality. He labeled Lenin’s position as “national liberalism.” And in trying to advance his opinion, Stalin clashed with Lenin’s wife, Krupskaya, who was handling Lenin’s affairs. She complained to Lenin of Stalin’s rudeness to her. And Lenin wrote a memorandum advising the Party to “remove Stalin” from his post as General Secretary on the ground that Stalin was rude and inclined to abuse power.

Stalin’s Background

Joseph Stalin, born Joseph Dzhugashvili, was the son of a shoe cobbler in the relatively affluent Georgian town of Gori – a town with a lot of handicraft and light industry. He ate well as a boy and did not suffer the poverty that sympathetic Russian biographers were to claim. He was a tough and vigorous little boy who learned confidence as he dominated other little boys – in part, perhaps, because of his quick thinking.

Joseph was also a diligent student, and his mother hoped that he would become a priest. From ages 9 to 14, Joseph studied at an Eastern Orthodox theological school in Gori. Then he left home and studied at a theological school in the city of Tiflis, a monastic school where the students were forbidden to leave the school’s premises or to read printed material other than that supplied by the school.

Dzhugashvili had not grown as much as other boys. The self-confidence he had learned earlier stayed with him, but the domination he had learned as a smaller boy he had to abandon. He continued his studious ways while alienated from his fellow students. His face was marked from small pox, and he was subjected to derisive jokes and cruel remarks. His body was damaged by his having been run over by a horse and carriage, an accident that left his left arm two inches shorter than his right arm.

The students were always scheming and reading forbidden books, and to counter this the school encouraged students to inform on one another. Some who knew Dzhugashvili better than those who wrote his official biographies were to claim that it was here that he learned denunciations and conspiracy. And Stalin himself was to admit that he had denounced several of his fellow students to school authorities.

Joseph Dzhugashvili, like others, suffered under the authority of the school’s monks, and he became ill tempered. In his last two years at the monastery school he no longer maintained his good discipline and devotion to study. He failed to graduate. But, contrary to the claims of flattering biographies, there is no evidence that he was swayed in his rebellion by reading Marx, Darwin and Victor Hugo.

Joseph’s dropping out of the seminary was no doubt a big disappointment to his mother. His father was now dead, and for months he existed without any known source of income. He knew no craft or trade, and military service was closed to him because of his bad arm. Bitter, lonely, penniless, friendless and with no source of income, Joseph Dzhugashvili wandered into Marxist meetings, largely attended or at least run by Marxists of the Menshevik persuasion – Bolsheviks being practically non-existent in Georgia at the time. The Mensheviks looked upon Dzhugashvili with suspicion. They led the labor movement in Georgia, and in 1899 a strike by railway workers took place in Tiflis, but, contrary to accounts by official biographers, Dzhugashvili had no part in planning it or in leading it.

There remains the question how Joseph Dzhugashvili was supporting himself. Perhaps he was recruited by tsarist police – the Okhrana – to spy for them on the Social Democratic movement in Tiflis, giving him a modest but regular income. Maybe he spied only for the local police. Perhaps Dzhugashvili believed he could act as a double agent, helping to create revolution at the same time that he was receiving pay from the police. [note]

In December 1899, Dzhugashvili finally had a job. He began working part-time at the Tiflis Geophysical Observatory. How he got the job is unknown. Perhaps it was obtained through connections involving the police, giving Dzhugashvili an obvious source of income, to prevent questions and giving him a cover for awhile. It was a job that was conveniently part-time, offering him time to mingle with revolutionary activists. He worked there for only a little over a year – until March 1901, and it was the only job he would have for years to come.

Like some others who had learned leadership in their early boyhood and had it taken away in the teens (Adolf Hitler among them), Joseph Dzhugashvili was eager to assert himself. At meetings, he advocated daring confrontations with the enemy – typical of police agents but also typical of naive revolutionary youths. He advocated large street demonstrations and agitation. In 1901 came another strike by railway workers. Contrary to his flattering biographers, Dzhugashvili did not lead this strike. The authorities responded to the strike by arresting prominent labor union leaders, other Social Democrats and intellectuals. The police made raids against Leftist printing presses and newspapers. And for awhile, as others around him were being arrested, Dzhugashvili remained untouched by the police.

Eventually Dzhugashvili would need to be arrested if he were to maintain his credibility as a revolutionary, and his first arrest came in 1902, just in time for relief from rising opinion in Menshevik circles that he was an agent provocateur. He was transferred to Siberia in August 1903. But he was treated well, and in January 1904 he was able to walk away from exile, returning to Tiflis by 1905, where he was again untouched by the police and getting by with no visible source of income.

Those who knew Dzhugashvili in this period described him as humorless, frequently sarcastic, crude and rude – without the humanistic warmth that many revolutionaries had. Lenin was by now making a name for himself in the socialist movement, and Dzhugashvili was attracted to Lenin’s movement in opposition to the Mensheviks, scorning the Mensheviks because of the preponderance of Jews among them. In Tiflis, the Mensheviks numbered around 3,000 and Lenin’s followers were few. As one of only a handful of Bolsheviks in Tiflis, and now a more experienced revolutionary, he was invited to attend a Bolshevik conference held in Finland, and then in Stockholm, as a delegate from Tiflis.

Before 1917, many police agents were among the Mensheviks and Bolsheviks, passing themselves off as revolutionaries. One such agent had been Father Gregory Gapon, leader of the general strike during the 1905 uprising against tsardom in wake of Russia’s defeat by the Japanese. Later, numerous Okhrana agents entered the Bolshevik ranks – unknown to each other. One was a man close to Lenin by the name of Malinovsky, who, unknown to Lenin and other Bolsheviks, had been a rapist and a burglar. The police frequently arrested Malinovsky along with others, and Lenin came to believe Malinovsky to be a wonderful Bolshevik and an outstanding organizer. Another Okhrana agent was M. E. Chernomazov, among the first official editors of the Bolshevik newspaperPravda – appointed to that position by Malinovsky.

With very few having joined the Bolsheviks, Lenin noticed the zealous Joseph Dzhugashvili. He asked Dzhugashvili to write an article that would appeal to the various ethnicities that had been under the rule of the Romanov tsars. Lenin outlined the article and had Stalin get in touch with Austrians named Bauer, Springer and Renner, whom Lenin saw as experts on the subject. The article and Lenin’s friendship helped advance Dzhugashvili among the Bolsheviks, and in May 1912 Dzhugashvili became an editor at Pravda. In early 1913, Dzhugashvili, began using a  nom de revolution – as wereLenin and others. Dzhugashvili was going by the name of Stalin, which in Russian meant steel. His position within the Bolshevik movement was now a source of livelihood. If he had been in the pay of the police for the sake of survival, this was no longer necessary.

In July 1913, Stalin was arrested again and sent to Turukhansk in Siberia, and there he remained until the revolution against the tsar in February 1917. During that uprising, workers in the palace of police in the capital, St. Petersburg, inspired perhaps by an Orhrana agent, burned the Okhrana files, destroying records that indicated which revolutionaries had been working for the police.

With the overthrow of the tsar and the freedom of political prisoners, Stalin resumed his position at Pravda. With the Bolshevik uprising and the establishment of the Soviet government in November, Stalin was appointed Commissar of Nationalities, one of the fifteen cabinet ministers in the new Soviet government. And in 1919 he was appointed Commissar of the Workers’ and Peasants’ Inspectorate – an inspector of the Soviet bureaucratic apparatus.

Filling Lenin’s Shoes

Lenin died in January 1924, and, with the question of Party leadership now more open, squabbling in the Bolshevik Party’s Politburo and Central Committee grew worse. Opponents of Trotsky backed Stalin. On the question of Lenin’s note criticizing Stalin for rudeness and abuse of power, Stalin described Lenin as having been a sick man and “surrounded by women” when he wrote the note. Few women were in the higher echelons of the Party to take offense. Trotsky remained silent about the note. To members of the Central Committee Stalin appeared to have mended his ways with proper humility and manners. Facing the Central Committee, Zinoviev spoke in support of Stalin, and the Central Committee voted to forget about Lenin’s note and that the note should not be published or revealed to that larger body of communists, the Party Congress – despite the Party Congress being in theory the ultimate source of power within the Communist Party.

It was the Communist Party’s Politburo rather than the Central Committee or the Soviet government that was running the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Meanwhile the Politburo was justifying with ideology every move it made. And to keep up with Party polemics and to put an end to a reputation among his colleagues that he was weak in theory, Stalin began taking private, bi-weekly lessons on Marxism, taught by a Party philosopher, Yan Sten. And Stalin found it hard going, especially the writings of the philosopher Hegel, whose turgid sentences were difficult for the brightest of people.

Meanwhile, Trotsky and his supporters were agitating for advancing socialism. Many Bolsheviks were growing impatient with the continuation of Lenin’s temporary compromise with capitalism – Lenin’s New Economic Policy. Not one for letting the market place decide economic matters, Trotsky advocated advancing socialist manufacturing. He advocated putting more emphasis on stimulating revolution in other countries, and he favored support for the Soviet Union’s more numerous poor farmers at the expense of its more successful farmers.

It was the surpluses produced on the more successful farms that were providing the Soviet Union with sales abroad, giving the Soviet Union hard currency with which to buy machinery with which to advance industry. And it was taxes from private enterprise that provided the government with some of its needed revenues. Farm production remained below what it had been before the war, and some Bolsheviks were for letting the big farms prosper for the sake of more food. Stalin listened to the debates without committing himself, and he tended to support the status quo, his position being that of caution in contrast to Trotsky’s boldness and independence of thought.

Eventually Stalin clashed openly with Trotsky, and the conflict between the two became vitriolic, with Stalin boasting about his past as an old Bolshevik while using petty falsehoods to denigrate Trotsky’s role in the revolution. To counter Trotsky, Stalin enunciated a position that became known as “Socialism in One Country,” a position that appealed to the common sense of rank and file Bolsheviks and to their greater interest in matters at home rather than the revolution abroad. Stalin announced to the Party that by now, five years after World War I had ended, the capitalist nations had stabilized. Revolution abroad, he claimed, was not imminent and the Soviet Union would need to live among the capitalist powers and maintain good relations with them for the sake of the Soviet Union’s trade and economic growth.

Stalin presented his views as orthodox Leninism, employing quotes from Engels and Lenin. It was the beginning of presenting ideas as conforming to those of Lenin and of Lenin as a great master of thought –  although, as Nikita Khrushchev pointed out in his memoir, Khrushchev Remembers, Stalin had acquired contempt for Lenin. Stalin was on his way to becoming the great simplifier of Marxism-Leninism. The smarter and more refined thinkers among the Bolsheviks were bound to become outsiders against those who relied on quotes from Marx, Engels and Lenin, and they were bound to become outsiders to the tendency among the rank and file Bolsheviks to simplify.

Zinoviev and Kamenev were close to Trotsky in their advocacy of world revolution and their eagerness to do away with the New Economic Policy. And they were eager for the Soviet Union to do away with free enterprise farming. But they remained opposed to Trotsky and his criticism of Party organization. They called for Trotsky’s expulsion from the Politburo. Stalin opposed this, posing as the man of Party unity and comity. But Trotsky was removed as head of the Red Army, and he was succeeded by a Stalin supporter: Klementiy Voroshilov.

Stalin moved to address the issue of socialism versus Lenin’s New Economic Policy. He and his allies laid plans for the building of socialist industries to exist alongside a continuation of free enterprise. Supporting Stalin in this move was the member of the Politburo who had filled the space on that body vacated by Lenin: Nikolai Bukharin. Bukharin, thirty-six years old, was a native of Moscow, and he had been a Bolshevik since at least 1908. Lenin had described him as the Party’s “greatest theoretician.” And Bukharin was at least bright enough to be concerned about peasant incentives. He saw progress in agricultural production being held back by the Communist Party harassing farmers. He was aware, for example, of peasants hiding a newly purchased machine to avoid being considered rich and a class enemy. Bukharin declared that the peasants should feel free to enrich themselves and develop their holdings, and he pushed the Soviet government into lifting restrictions on more wealthy farmers hiring people to help them work their farms.

Zinoviev and Kamenev, true believers in an eventual extension of socialism into the countryside, repeatedly attacked Bukharin for his position on the peasants and farming. Opposition between Stalin and Bukharin on one side and Zinoviev and Kamenev on the other extended into the 14th Party Congress, which met in December, 1925. Zinoviev and Kamenev were now worried about Stalin’s influence, and at the Party Congress they spoke out against Stalin, attacking what they called “one man rule.” Lenin’s widow, Krupskaya, sided with Zinoviev and Kamenev, noting that the majority is not always right. To the rank and file, which Krupskaya had just insulted, Zinoviev and Kamenev appeared quarrelsome, factional and disruptive. And amid the acrimony Stalin again appeared as the man of reason, amity and Party unity. When Stalin rose to speak after the verbal attacks upon him, the hall gave him thunderous applause and prolonged cheers.

The note that Lenin had written criticizing Stalin was no longer an effective weapon against Stalin. That note was unknown to the Party membership at-large, and to the nation, until an American journalist, Max Eastman, published an account of it. Eastman was a supporter of Trotsky, and members of the Politburo demanded that Trotsky repudiate Eastman. Trotsky did, signing a statement describing Eastman’s claims as a malicious invention. The Party, Trotsky believed, was an instrument of history and had to be supported. At least he felt compelled to protect his position within the Party, hoping that someday he and his supporters would be able to rescue the Party and history.

Kamenev and Zinoviev had not been on speaking terms with Trotsky since 1923, but in 1926 they tried to enlist Trotsky on their side against Stalin and Bukharin. They mimicked Stalin’s accent and his body movements. The three formed what was called a “United Opposition” and rallied what little rank and file support they could. They spoke for a more vigorous industrialization, for planned industrial development and for less favor toward free enterprise in farming. Now that Kamenev and Zinoviev held minority opinions within the Party they went along with Trotsky’s call for greater democracy. And Trotsky complained that he and others with him had no opportunity to state their case to the public.

Stalin and his allies launched an open offensive against the new opposition alliance, Stalin describing the faction as a “Social Democratic deviation” – an accusation taken seriously by other Party members. Meetings of the “Opposition” were broken up. It members were forced to meet in secret in a forest. Fighting back, Trotsky, in front of members of the Central Committee, decried what he said would be an end to sincere disagreement in the Party and the Party’s eventual ruin. He pointed a finger at Stalin and called him a candidate for the “post of gravedigger of the Revolution.” The following day Trotsky was removed from the Politburo. And soon Zinoviev and Kamenev were also removed from the Politburo.

The Opposition tried to use Stalin’s failed policy in China to discredit him and to promote themselves. On the tenth anniversary of the revolution, 7 November 1927, supporters of the Opposition demonstrated in the streets, with banners reading down with NEP men, the kulak and bureaucrats, and “Long live the leaders of the World Revolution, Trotsky and Zinoviev.”  They were attacked by agents of the police and others. No backing from crowds developed that would have made the march a success. Zinoviev, Kamenev and Trotsky were expelled from the Party and Trotsky was exiled to a remote part of the Soviet Union: Turkestan. Party members who supported the Opposition were expelled from the Party. Former comrades, they were now seen as traitors and threats to the development of proper ideas. Toleration not being one of the characteristics of the Bolshevik regime, dissident Bolsheviks were fired from their regular jobs and their families were hounded.

Stalin becomes the Great Builder

With the leftist Bolsheviks crushed, Stalin, the moderate Bolshevik, now had only those Bolsheviks to his right to worry about. Bukharin had two allies on the newly formed seven-man Politburo, Aleksei Rykov and Michael Tomsky, and he believed that he was leading a majority on the Politburo. But two members of the Politburo who appeared to support Bukharin – Voroshilov and Mikhail Kalinin – would come down on the side of Stalin. Stalin had close ties with the secret police, the GPU (formerly the CHEKA), and he had a new weapon: the dossier. Kalinin was having an affair with a showgirl who had risen to stardom as his protégé, and Voroshilov was a playboy. Both feared Stalin and were ready to curry favor with him. The seventh member of the Politburo, Vyacheslav Molotov, was also loyal to Stalin.

The Soviet Union needed to import machinery to advance its industry, and to pay for these imports it needed to export. Tsarist Russia had been a great exporter of grain, and the Bolsheviks were hoping to repeat this – to export grain rather than manufactured goods. Grain production was abundant in 1926, but in 1927 production fell some two million tons short of what was needed to meet both export requirements and to feed people in the cities. Part of the problem was bad government pricing policy. Government price controls was a disincentive against peasants producing. Bukharin’s attempts to unleash farmer incentives had not been widely supported. And in January 1928, in response to the grain shortage of 1927, the Politburo returned to its emergency measure: confiscations.

Soviet farmers were different from adoring rank and file Bolsheviks of the Party’s Central Committee and Party congresses. When Stalin visited the countryside and tried to convince farmers to give up their stored grain, one of them shouted ridicule at his being a Georgian and said that if he danced a lezginka maybe they would give him some grain. Stalin returned to Moscow more determined to strike against the farmers. The Bolsheviks sent 30,000 activists into the countryside, and they collected 2.5 million tons of grain, half of a ton more than was needed. But the coercion had disastrous results on production. The farmers were fearful of more confiscations and a return to what they remembered of War Communism. With less incentive to produce, another drop in production was in the making.

In the spring of 1928, Bukharin mobilized his supporters against Stalin and others supporting a policy of coercion against farmers, and he talked of sweeping Stalin away. Stalin, meanwhile, had learned of sabotage in factories, and he began denouncing saboteurs – also called “wreckers.” In May 1928 a trial began against 53 engineers accused of sabotage. Reporters from abroad attended the trial. Twenty-two of the engineers were found guilty and sentenced to die. But, thanks to the benevolence of the Bolsheviks, only five were actually executed.

Stalin still appeared to be the man of Party unity and amity, while Bukharin and others opposed to Stalin’s policy regarding agriculture appeared to be disloyal and disruptive. The GPU gave Stalin reports of Bukharin’s visits to Zinoviev and Kamenev – more moves by Bukharin in organizing opposition to Stalin, with Bukharin calling Stalin behind his back an unscrupulous intriguer and a Genghis Khan.

Meanwhile Stalin’s struggle against “wreckers” continued. By July, another fall in grain production was apparent. And the nation launched an ambitious five-year program for industrialization, a program for increased production of pig iron, tractors, cars and trucks. And in need of more grain for export as well as food at home, Stalin asked the Party to strike hard against the peasants he called kulaks. What Stalin meant exactly by “kulak” is not clear. In the eyes of Stalin’s supporters the kulak was a rich peasant, but by “kulak” Stalin meant any average farmer with maybe two or three cows and up to ten hectares of farming land – a family farmer with perhaps five children.

Stalin was concerned that his policies – his move toward the left and socialism – was increasing the average Soviet citizen’s opposition to the Party. Rather than appease any increased opposition, Stalin attacked it head-on. At the Sixth Soviet Congress, a call was made for open war against Mensheviks, who were described as spies. In Turkestan, Trotsky was writing and distributing propaganda against Stalin, and, in January 1929, Stalin managed to expel Trotsky from the Soviet Union, Trotsky going first to Turkey.

On the fifth anniversary of Lenin’s death, Krupskaya angered Stalin by publishing an article in Pravda about Lenin’s non-coercive approach towards the peasants. Stalin intensified his drive for conformity and for war against the “exploiting classes.” A Party man was put in charge of each intellectual field of endeavor, with the authority to impose Party conformity on persons in that field. A slogan, “the five-year plan in four!” was pushed across the Soviet Union, with even kindergartners marching around their schools, waving banners and chanting without knowing what their chant meant.

Stalin announced that the Soviet Union was moving “full steam ahead” to socialism. In cities and towns, free enterprisers were being driven out of business by confiscatory taxes. Some business people were arrested. Some were tortured in an attempt to learn where they had hidden gold or other valuables that could be used for foreign exchange. Privately owned shops were beginning to disappear. The five-year plan was ending unemployment in the cities, while real wages were falling and food rationing was being reintroduced. The five-year plan was designed for industrial advance rather than for consumers, and the public was told that it would need to sacrifice – in other words work hard and do without all but the barest of necessities.

Taking socialism to the countryside, in some rural areas a program of collectivization of agriculture was begun. An intensive campaign of confiscation against the “kulaks” went into high gear, especially in the Ukraine, the breadbasket of the Soviet Union. Sporadic armed resistance to confiscations arose. Some with excess grain sold it to poorer peasants at reduced prices, or they sold it to an illegal private trader who smuggled it in parcels on rafts or in carts at night. When angry peasants could not hide or sell their grain they turned their crop into hay, burned it, or threw it into the river. In retaliation against the “class enemy” that summer of 1929, a hundred thousand Party members were sent into the countryside to help with the grain collection. And the government sent an army of perhaps another hundred thousand urbanites against the peasants.

Stalin now moved against Bukharin and his supporters, denouncing them as petite-bourgeois (in other words, having the mentality of small business people). Tomsky was charged with being opposed to the new industrialization program, and he was dismissed from his position as head of the trade unions. Rykov was removed from his posts. Bukharin was removed from the Politburo. But for the time being Tomsky and Rykov were able to remain on the Politburo – by confessing their errors.

Many peasants were being forcibly resettled and put under police control, and many were being put into labor camps. The number of labor camp inmates soared in 1929 and continued rising in 1930, the inmates destined to labor on building projects, such as a great canal running south from the White Sea, at the northern edge of the Soviet Union, north of  Leningrad.

The increase in struggle and strife intensified the Party’s push for conformity. Across the Soviet Union the class enemy was condemned in radio broadcasts, at staff meetings in factories, at universities, and in kindergartens. More arrests were made and more trials were staged. More members of Russia’s old aristocracy were denied work and evicted from their home, and some were arrested. By 1930, six labor camps were in existence. The sons and daughters of priests, aristocrats, well-to-do families and all others whose class origins were suspect were barred from universities, and they would find it difficult to find employment.

Having little support in the countryside, Stalin and the Bolsheviks needed all the support they could get from the cities, and numerous urbanites had swung behind the Bolshevik dictatorship. They were feeling none of the hostility that was being heaped onto farmers and the upper classes, and they believed that people hostile to the revolution were indeed around. To them the Bolshevik campaign against saboteurs was credible. Most of them were not intellectuals and felt none of the  pressures to conform intellectually that was felt by people opposed to Bolshevik ideas.

Stalin’s statues and busts were being put up in town squares and the halls of public buildings. Some towns and cities were now to bear forms of his name: Stalingrad, Stalinabad and Stalinogorsk. So too were schools, factories, military barracks and agricultural collectives. Many in Russia, like masses of people in Italy and Germany, felt need for a leader – the word that in Italian translated intoduce and in German translated to führer. Stalin would now be viewed by the public as having organized the Bolshevik Party alongside Lenin, as having led the Bolshevik Revolution and as having victoriously commanded the Red Army. On Stalin’s fiftieth birthday, in late December 1929, huge portraits of him hung from buildings. The people greeted his appearance with great hurrahs. Stalin was adulated in speeches, and described in the Bolshevik newspaper, Pravda, as “deeper than the ocean, higher than the Himalayas, brighter than the sun” and as “the teacher of the universe.” Stalin had become the Great Leader of the Soviet Union and its revolution, recognized at home and abroad by people who applied a “class analysis” to events and remained hopeful that the Soviet Union was leading the way to a socialist paradise. But coercion had become a prevalent reality rather than a society of voluntarism suggested by Karl Marx, and the question whether Lenin’s policies had led to Stalinism appeared to be yes –  because Lenin’s party, the Bolsheviks had allowed it and had supported it.

Revolutionaries controlled history no more than others – something that could have been learned from the French Revolution. Of the seven politburo members at the time of Lenin’s death, only Stalin would survive past 1940 – the year that Trotsky would be murdered by a Stalinist agent. All the others would be shot, except for one, Tomsky, the only genuine worker among them, who committed suicide.

Additional Online Reading

Emma Goldman in Russia, 1920-21

Recommended Books

Stalin, by Edvard Radzinsky, Doubleday, 1996.

The Young Stalin, by Edward Ellis Smith, 1967.

Memoirs of a Revolutionary, by Victor Serge, 1963 Oxford University Press.

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Copyright © 1998-2005 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.

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Published on February 27, 2009 at 2:31 am  Leave a Comment  

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