Lenin’s last struggle, the first battle against Stalinism
In the Central Committee of October 6, 1922 Lenin was absent. Stalin presents a text that strongly limits the state monopoly on foreign trade, which is approved. A few days later Lenin sends a letter to the CC with a hard criticism of its decision. On December 13, Lenin writes to Trotsky and, realizing that their positions on this issue converge, asks him to make a battle on their behalf at the next meeting of the governing body.
Giving a few steps back: Why Lenin does not participate in the meetings and merely writes letters? Because he is seriously ill and bedridden. He had suffered a first stroke. But since the last Party Congress he attended, the XI, in the spring of 1922 he starts a battle against the bureaucratization evils he perceives to be growing in the state of the Soviets. In this Congress, in a speech made on 27 March, he states: “The machine refused to obey the hand that guided it.” (1) That is why, a few months later, in a private meeting he proposes to Trotsky to form a bloc “against bureaucracy in general and against the Organizational Bureau in particular.” (2) And Organizational Bureau meant the very heart of Stalin’s apparatus.
On the night between the 12th and 13th December another stroke paralyzes Lenin. He can’t attend the CC meeting, but, after getting better, he writes to the CC on 16 December informing its members he had reached a full agreement with Trotsky, who would defend their common view at the next meeting. In the CC of 18 December Lenin and Trotsky’s position is approved and the previous resolution is modified. Stalin notes with concern the movement of a Lenin whose disease couldn’t stop him completely. So, he passed a motion in this very CC by which the full responsibility for Lenin’s care would be trusted to him. His desire is to isolate him, so he asks the doctors to determine a limitation of the patient’s political activity to a few minutes a day in which Lenin could only dictate a few lines to the secretaries, but wouldn’t receive the answers to his letters, or talk of politics with the rare visitors allowed in his room.
The prohibition, as rightly note by the historian Jean Jacques Marie, is deprived of any medical basis: moreover, to prevent a revolutionary who spent his life immersed in politics from engaging in politics, actually meant to seek to destroy his strength, worsen his disease. In fact, the real Stalin’s concern is not Lenin’s illness but, as J. J. Marie writes: Stalin wants to have “his hands on the man who decided to start a struggle with Trotsky against him.”
Knowing the first victory won in the CC, on 21 December, Lenin dictates to Krupskaya a letter to Trotsky: “I suggest that we should not stop and should continue the offensive.” (4) The offensive which Lenin speaks of is the one against Stalin and the bureaucrats the secretary of the CC is organizing around himself.
But Stalin is quickly informed of the fact that Krupskaya left Lenin dictate a message to Trotsky. Then he phones her and insults her, threatening to send her to the disciplinary bodies by compromising Lenin’s treatment. Lenin will know this episode only three months later: this precision, as we shall see, is significant because, unlike several commentators’ opinions, the divergence between Stalin and his wife did not affect the Testament that Lenin began to dictate by those days.
The story of the last Lenin’s struggle (to recover the expression with which Lewin titled his book on the subject) is generally neglected by Stalinist, social-democratic or bourgeois historians. Why? Because it is a stony ground for the theory of Lenin-Stalin continuity, essential to both yesterday bureaucrats, who claim Lenin for the justification of their crimes, and the bourgeoisie and their agents to liquidate the Communism and every project of destruction of social class societies.
What was later known as Testament are the notes that Lenin wanted to send to the XII Congress of the Bolshevik Party, scheduled for the following months (5). His last dictates to the secretaries, Maria Volodiceva and Lydia Fotieva start on December 23, 1922 and end on January 4, 1923, when he dictates a last important message. In the text, Lenin starts by giving reason to Trotsky against Stalin on the debate about the Gosplan (the State Commission for planning). Then he carries out an evaluation of the main leaders of the party.
Lenin highlights “the unlimited authority” that Stalinconcentrated in his hands. After saying that Stalin and Trotsky are “the two outstanding leaders of the present CC”, he adds that Trotsky is “personally perhaps the most capable man in the present C.C.” and indicates some limitations of the leader with whom he led a battle against bureaucracy (“excessive preoccupation with the purely administrative side of the work” and “excessive self-assurance“). But this is a trifle compared with the merciless judgment he makes of all other leading exponents of the ruling party.
He goes on. On January 4, an additional note on Stalin said: “Stalin is too rude and this defect, although quite tolerable in our midst and in dealing among us Communists, becomes intolerable in a Secretary-General. That is why I suggest that the comrades think about a way of removing Stalin from that post and appointing another man in his stead who in all other respects differs from Comrade Stalin in having only one advantage, namely, that of being more tolerant, more loyal, more polite and more considerate to the comrades, less capricious, etc.”
It’s a blow aimed at proposing the removal of Stalin. Lenin does not seek compromising with Stalin, he indeed warns Trotsky against the maneuvers of the party secretary. And the battle continues. Now Lenin decides to take up the defense of the Georgian question against the chauvinistic policy supported by Stalin.
This is how Trotsky sums up the story in his autobiography: “Lenin names only six people there, and sums them up briefly, weighing each word. Unquestionably, his object in making the will was to facilitate the work of direction for me. He naturally wanted to do it with the least possible amount of friction. He talks about every one most guardedly, softening the most devastating judgments. At the same time he qualifies with reservations the too definite indication of the one whom he thinks entitled to first place. Only in his analysis of Stalin does one feel a different tone which in the later postscript to the will is nothing short of annihilating.” Then, Trotsky adds: “two more months passed during which the situation took definite shape. Lenin was now preparing not only to remove Stalin from his post of general secretary, but to disqualify him before the party as well.”
In order to “disqualify Stalin” and continue the battle Lenin then dictates two articles: “How we should reorganize the Workers and Peasants Inspection” and, in an even more explicit way, “Better fewer, but better.” Note that the Inspection that Lenin proposes to reorganize urgently was headed until a few days before by Stalin. This is also a shot against Stalin. The Politburo of the party discusses the opportunity to publish on Pravda the second of two articles. A leader close to Stalin had proposed to only print a copy and show it to Lenin … Finally the text is published on the 4th of March on Pravda.
Immediately after Lenin wrote to the Georgian leaders declaring solidarity with their position and against the Stalin’s position of “Great-Russia”, that is, against the denial of the right to self-determination of Georgia and the possibility to give life to a federated republic with Russia and not subordinate to it.
On this occasion Lenin turns to the leader he most estimates, the one he felt should replace him in case of his death: Trotsky. On March 5th, he dictates a letter to Trotsky asking him to do the same he did during the debate on the monopoly. “I would feel at ease if you agreed to undertake its defense. [of the Georgian question, editor]” (6). He also informed Trotsky, always through one of the secretaries, that he wanted to attack frontally Stalin in the upcoming Congress.
Meanwhile, he was also informed by Krupskaya, his wife and member of the party leadership, of the offenses Stalin had inflicted on her in December last year. At that point, a letter addressed to Stalin was written asking if he was prepared to make apologies, because “what has been done against my wife I consider having been done against me as well.”
On March 9th, while the battle is just beginning, Lenin is hit by another stroke, which deprives him of speaking.
From March 1923 to January 1924, the month of his death, Lenin doesn’t see Stalin. The relations between them are broken.
The fate of the testament
What about the testament of Lenin?
The text is not read at the XII Congress (April 1923). After Lenin’s death (January 21, 1924) Krupskaya brings the document to the CC and asks that the text should be read at the XIII Congress, which would take place in May 1924. But the leaders, at the suggestion of Stalin, Kamenev and Zinovev (which have formed a secret fraction), propose that it is kept confidential. Trotsky is outvoted. At the insistence of Krupskaya, it is decided that it would be read only to the heads of delegations. The meeting takes place on May 22, 1924, with the commitment of those present to keep the secret and not even take notes: the text is not delivered or read to the general audience of delegates.
It would be published abroad, first some fragments, then full, by the American militant Max Eastman, close to Trotsky, a year later. In Russia the will was published only in 1956, by Khrushchev, as a tool in the fight that had opened between the various fractions in dispute after the death of Stalin (1954), during the so-called “de-Stalinization.”
Many books have been written, starting from the considerations of Deutscher, a leading biographer of Trotsky, for a phase a Trotskyist leader (hostile to the constitution of the Fourth International in 1938), about the alleged hesitation of Trotsky. Why didn’t he claim the publication of the text? Why didn’t he launch immediately the battle against Stalin?
In fact, as all the best biographers have documented and in the more recent studies, Trotsky simply didn’t think it was tactically appropriate, with Lenin seriously ill, and even soon after Lenin’s death, to launch a frontal attack for the removal of Stalin. He tries to fight a preparatory political battle; he tries to accumulate the necessary forces. Hence his acceptance of a series of compromises in that he understands to be a battle that can’t be won by him alone and in one shot. Above all, he hopes that the revolution in Europe, in Germany, can break the Russian isolation, the main cause for the advance of the bureaucracy.
1994, a first falsification of the testament is discovered
Until the opening of archives in Moscow, following the collapse of the Stalinism at the end of the eighties, this is all that we knew of Lenin’s testament.
The same Trotsky explained how that single sentence in the text in which Lenin refers to him in relatively negative terms had to be considered in the context of the reasoning of Lenin, who designated him, nevertheless, as his successor at the head of the revolution.
In particular, in the article “On the suppressed testament of Lenin” (see bibliography at the end) Trotsky insisted on the distorted interpretation of that sentence made by the Stalinists who tried to turn it into a “synthesis” of the testament but not based on the original version.
Which sentence is this? One in which Lenin, having already spoken positively of Trotsky, comes to talk of two other leading members, Kamenev and Zinoviev. He emphasizes their “not accidental” behavior when they committed a serious political mistake in the course of 1917. However, Lenin adds that in any case these errors “ought as little to be used against them personally as the non-Bolshevism of Trotsky.”
This is the “original” version – or at least it was considered original even by Trotsky. Stalin instead circulated readings in which that sentence was reversed: both the mistakes of Kamenev and Zinoviev and Trotsky’s non-Bolshevik past could neither be underestimated nor forgotten because they would have consequences in the present time.
The fact is that Trotsky never publicly questioned the phrase (at least in the version that was believed to be original), although indubitably those words are inconsistent with the rest of the text, and especially with the context of the last Lenin’s battle. Why would Lenin return to the non-Bolshevik past of whom was considered by him, after 1917, “the best of the Bolsheviks,” the main leader with Lenin of the revolution? Why would he deliver a weapon into the hands of Stalin just as Trotsky was his main ally in the battle against Stalin and the bureaucracy?
For years it remained an unclear point. Until, with the opening of archives in Moscow, new documents have been found. Let’s see.
In 1994, the historian Yuri Buranov writes a book called Lenin’s will. Falsified and forbidden. From the Secret Archives of the former Soviet Union (see bibliography). In the book he takes up a theme that had already been dealt on Russian magazines in 1991 and which was also given space in the Italian newspaper La Stampa in articles by Giulietto Chiesa (correspondent of L’Unitá in Moscow for years).
In the articles of 1991 as well as in the book of 1994 Buranov explains that he found in the Soviet archives a manuscript page of December 23, 1922: the one that opens the text of Lenin then known as the testament, copied (as confirmed by the handwriting expert) by Nadiezhda Alliluyeva, one of the secretaries of Lenin and also Stalin’s wife.
The thing is interesting for several reasons: Alliluyeva was not on duty that day at Lenin’s room (as evidenced by the diaries of the secretaries: see bibliography). Volodiceva was on duty that day. The latter – as had already emerged from the interviews remained unpublished until 1989, made in 1967 by the historian Aleksandr Bek – had admitted that, while Lenin dictated his testament, the secretaries immediately brought the text to Stalin.
When Volodiceva, by order of the manager of the secretaries, Fotieva, brings the first dictation of Lenin in the study of Stalin, she finds Alliluyeva, Bukharin and a couple of other leaders. Stalin reads the text and, visibly frightened, gives the order to burn it. However, he urges his wife to make a copy and keep it, while Volodiceva is ordered to write on the copy to be kept in the archives a couple of phrases that Lenin had not dictated. Is from this modified version that five copies which are usually known as the testament of Lenin are made.
So the text found in the archives by Buranov, handwritten by Stalin’s wife, is a copy of the original text actually dictated by Lenin. This page differs by a sentence from the one published in the Works of Lenin, and widely regarded for decades as the original: whereas Lenin is said to agree with Trotsky on the question of the State Planning Commission [Gosplan, led by Stalin] (I agree, in this regard, with Comrade Trotsky), by Stalin’s order it was added: “Up to a certain point and under certain conditions.”
These few words, as can be understood, spill the meaning of the sentence: they not only relativize the agreement between Lenin and Trotsky on that important point (it was the beginning of the battle against Stalin) but they almost reveal a contrast between the two men that Lenin would solve with a partial compromise.
Buranov has thus demonstrated unequivocally that Stalin did falsify the testament, at least with regard to the page where it was found the copy of the original. But can one believe that the rest of the text, which was delivered on time by the secretaries to Stalin, dictated gradually by Lenin, has no other forgeries?
Several years later, Luciano Canfora, a historian with Stalinist training, and certainly not suspected of sympathy for Trotsky, raises a new question. The general aim of his research is to prove an alleged and non-existent difference between Stalin and Togliatti, to beatify the latter with the so-called “Italian road to socialism,” i.e. Stalinist reformism led by one of the worst Stalinists in history, Togliatti.
In fact, he published a book dedicated to the falsification of various historical texts. The book also deals with Lenin’s testament.
Summarizing the discoveries made by Buranov proving irrefutably that at least the wording of December 23 has been tampered with by Stalin, Canfora asks: and if the same thing, using the same method, i.e. adding a sentence to change the understanding, had been made in other parts of the text?
Re-reading the testament, it is clear that the its most contradictory phrase is the one we mentioned above, about Trotsky’s non-Bolshevik past. That phrase has been (in the “original” or in its deformed version) now and for decades the workhorse of the Stalinists: the phrase by which they tried to obscure the true meaning of the testament.
Some linguists, experts in Russian, confirm to Canfora that just that phrase, in Russian, is ungrammatical, it disagrees from a syntactic point of view with the main clause.
Canfora’s reasoning is at this point very simple: we know that Stalin did falsify a phrase at the beginning of the text; we know that he had the opportunity, through the secretaries, to make other “fixes” to the text by Lenin (who was unaware that his pages would end directly on the desk of Stalin); we know that phrase, fundamental, is out of tune with the intentions of Lenin; we know that phrase, even from a linguistic point of view, does not agree with the text.
Canfora has no evidence, because it could not find copies of the other original pages of the testament. It’s possible that, despite falsifying it, Stalin has not made a copy as he did previously. Or it is possible, if not probable, that the copies made were lost in the archives or have been destroyed. The conclusion of the historian, I repeat, who has no sympathy for Trotskyism, is nevertheless: the near certainty, based on all the evidence, that Lenin had never dictated in his testament a sentence about Trotsky’s non-Bolshevik past.
Knowing what has Stalin made later: the systematic falsification of the whole revolutionary history to credit himself a primary role in the crucial moments that he has never had; the extermination of all the Bolshevik leaders; perhaps even, as some historians suspect, even without having the evidence, the poisoning of Lenin; knowing all this, it wouldn’t certainly be a surprise if Canfora’s hypothesis coincide with the true facts.
It is significant that neither the discovery of Buranov nor the hypothesis advanced by Canfora have found space in historical studies after their publications. To our knowledge, this issue has caused only a few journalistic interest, and mostly in Italy, even after the amplification given by Canfora after Buranov.
Of course, if even Canfora’s hypothesis was based on a confirming document, the find would neither change the course of history nor would add much to the crimes of Stalinism. But it would be further evidence, added to infinite others, that between Lenin and Stalin there was an unbridgeable abyss. On the one hand the revolution and the Bolshevik Party which was its architect; on the other the counter-revolution and the Stalinist bureaucracy responsible for it.
A curiosity: Canfora’s mistake
In closing, it’s worth reporting the fact, which apparently escaped to all those who reviewed the book by Canfora, that False history in turn contains an involuntary mistake, or at least a blunder, which is unforgivable in a book that exposes the historical falsifications.
In rebuilding the moment when the party leaders were brought to the attention of Lenin’s testament, Canfora relies on the reconstruction made by the writer Emil Ludwig. He, citing Radek (at that time a close leader to Stalin), wrote of a “leap from his seat” allegedly given by Trotsky during a CC session when Stalin would be reading the testament and in particular at the time of the reading of the sentence about his non-Bolshevism. According to Ludwig, repeated by Canfora, Trotsky would have asked Stalin to reread that passage.
After correctly pointing out that actually the first reading of the testament was given in a closed session of the XIII Congress, in May 1924, Canfora takes the rest of Ludwig and Radek’s story for granted, and ventures in assumptions that perhaps Trotsky found that sentence suspect, but was not able to prove it. Probably, Canfora adds, Trotsky already knew the original text (without the offending sentence), as one of the secretaries of Lenin, Marija Gljasser, was politically close to him and could have given him the information.
But Canfora makes a mistake that could have been avoided if he had bothered to read Trotsky’s article, written in 1932 (see bibliography), dedicated to the story of the testament. Trotsky explains that Ludwig-Radek are lying to exaggerate the legend propagated by the Stalinists about the fact that the testament contains harsh accusations of Lenin to Trotsky’s non-Bolshevik past, whereas in the original text (well, we can say today, the text Trotsky supposed to be original) Lenin says that it should not be imputed to Trotsky his non-Bolshevik past. Trotsky adds that he has not “leapt from his seat” and that the entire reconstruction of Ludwig is false not only because (as also noted by Canfora) the testament was read at another time to the leaders, but because furthermore it was Kamenev who read it not Stalin. Trotsky said he actually gave a “leap from the seat,” but on another occasion. It was at a plenum of the Central Committee, in 1926, when various unpublished texts by Lenin so far were read (this time by Stalin). It was on this occasion that Trotsky interrupted Stalin while he was reading the letter of March 5, 1923 (which we mentioned above). In this letter Lenin invites Trotsky to defend the Georgian question in the next CC meeting. The letter ended with very affectionate words, which were rare in Lenin: “With the very best comradely greetings.” In reading, Stalin changed some words and read a drier and more official “communist greetings.” At this moment Trotsky (who remembered by memory this significant detail on Lenin’s letter to him) interrupted Stalin and asked him to read the exact words. Which Stalin was obliged to do, embarrassed, because those “With the very best comradely greetings” were addressed to the leader with whom Lenin decided to start his last struddle, the first made by the Bolsheviks against the Stalinist degeneration.
(1) VI Lenin, in Collected Works, vol. 33, p. 253.
(2) L. Trotsky, My Life, p. 441.
(3) J. J. Marie, Lénine, p. 271 (in French).
(4) VI Lenin, op.cit., Vol. 45.
(5) See VI Lenin, op.cit., Vol. 36.
(6) See. VI Lenin, op.cit., Vol. 45.
The book I have based on Moshe Lewin’s Lenin’s last struggle, 1968. This is the first text that sheds light on the matter, also based on the Diary of the Secretaries of Lenin (see below). Lewin’s book is more interesting for the accurate reconstruction of the facts than for author’s conclusions, not without a certain psychology.
The Diary of Secretaries of Lenin, are notes of service taken by Lenin’s collaborators, recorded between November 1922 and March 1923. It was published for the first time in 1963 in Russia by a history magazine, and then translated and published on Cahiers du monde russe et soviétique, of April-June 1967, edited by Lewin and Jean Jacques Marie. The text is also available on the Internet, www.persee.fr/web/revues.
Indispensable is also the article by Trotsky “On the suppressed Testament of Lenin”, 1932, published in July 1934 on the Trotskyist magazine New International then repeatedly reprinted by Pathfinder Press, New York. Italian edition is edited by Paul Casciola in a brochure for the Centro Studi Pietro Tresso: Lenin-Trotsky. In lotta contro lo stalinismo. La vera storia del Testamento di Lenin (1988). (Lenin-Trotsky. In the struggle against Stalinism. The true story of Lenin’s testament)
These books devote a few pages to the story: E.H. Carr, The death of Lenin. The interregnum, 1923-1924, Cambridge University Press, 1965; P. Broué, The Lost Revolution. Life of Trotsky,1879-1940, in particular in chapter 20, “The bloc with Lenin”, in chapter 22, “Lost opportunities” and in chapter 23, “Debate without Lenin”; Louis Fischer, The Life of Lenin, Harper & Row, 1964, in particular in the chapter L “Lenin’s last will and testament.”
The most recent discoveries about Stalin’s manipulation of the Testament are analyzed in Jurij Buranov, Lenin’s will. Falsified and forbidden; from the Secret Archives of the former Soviet Union, Prometheus Books, 1994. Buranov’s find was echoed by the Italian press in the article by Giulietto Church, published on La Stampa, July 12, 1991: “E’ un falso di Stalin il Testamento di Lenin” (Lenin’s testament is falsified by Stalin). (available on the newspaper’s website). Luciano Canfora resumes the information by Buranov and advances his hypothesis of further possible falsification in the book La storia falsa (The false story), Rizzoli, 2008.