Born 150 years ago, on April 22, 1870, Vladimir Ulianov, universally known under his adopted revolutionary pen name, Lenin, had no children. His offspring was the vanguard party, a political innovation based on fanatical ideological engagement, an uncompromising will to power, and unbending discipline.
Ninety years ago, on January 21, 1924, the founder of the Bolshevik Party and of the Soviet Union, the undisputed coryphaeus of world communism, passed away. Lenin’s last year was nothing but endless agony. Isolated in a mansion turned into a sanatorium of sorts, a former aristocratic residence located outside Moscow, Lenin was in fact a prisoner. Information to him was strictly filtered by the Bolshevik leadership’s emissary, the Politburo member, and the head of the party’s department of cadres, the Georgian-born revolutionary Iosif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili, known as Stalin (Koba, to his friends).
In his “Letter to the Congress,” dictated in December 1922 and January 1923 to his secretary Lydia Fotieva, Lenin requested Stalin’s replacement as General Secretary. Politburo members read the document but decided to keep it secret. Lenin’s demands were ignored, denied, forgotten. The old leader’s power had vanished. Paeans were of course dedicated to him, he was lionized in poems and songs, his name was frantically chanted, but he had ceased to be the real decision-maker regarding strategic choices and bureaucratic appointments. By that moment, all the key institutions of the totalitarian system had been set in place in order to preserve the Bolsheviks’ absolute hold on power. In the following years, the epigones, and Stalin more than anybody else, did their utmost to exacerbate the exclusionary, genocidal logic of Leninism.
Lenin’s disciples preferred to maintain Stalin in a crucial position. With very few exceptions, they failed to realize that he who controls the cadres controls the party and thereby the whole system. When they became aware of this situation, it was too late. The Old Bolsheviks were systematically eliminated from crucial positions and replaced by robot-like creatures totally subjugated by the supreme leader, the vozhd (the Bolshevik equivalent of what the Nazis would call the Führer). Some became utterly influential as members of Stalin’s entourage: Lazar Kaganovich, Georgi Malenkov, Lev Mekhlis, and Nikolay Yezhov. In 1929, Stalin unleashed the “revolution from above” and implemented Leon Trotsky’s militaristic program (minus the proposals to observe a modicum of intra-party democracy). Lenin’s final opposition to the bureaucratic elephantiasis, and his critique of the mendacious propaganda system, were totally discarded. The Leninist creed was sacralized and mummified in order to legitimize the power of the nomenklatura, a parasitic caste claiming to represent proletarian interests and values.
At the moment of Lenin’s demise, the party elite was beset by a fierce struggle among those who wanted to inherit his mantle. Stalin established an alliance with Lev Kamenev, the head of the Moscow party organization and Lenin’s deputy at the helm of the Council of People’s Commissars, and with Grigory Zinoviev, the leader of the Petrograd (soon to be baptized Leningrad) Soviet and chairman of the Third International, also known as the Comintern. Thus a troika emerged, made up of Lenin’s lesser clones: Kamenev, Zinoviev, and Stalin. The Leninist cult found support also among the members of Nikolai Bukharin’s faction. Bukharin, much younger than other Bolshevik luminaries, was the editor of Pravda and widely seen as the Party’s main theorist.
They all shared a common hostility to Trotsky, a Politburo member, the first commander of the Red Army, and a firebrand revolutionary apostle. In his “Letter to the Congress,” in fact his political testament, Lenin had called Trotsky “the most brilliant member of the Central Committee.” The triumvirs hated Trotsky’s revolutionary extravaganzas, his undisguised sense of superiority, and his presumed Bonapartist inclinations. As early as 1923, when Lenin was still alive, Zinoviev had launched a furious campaign in defense of Bolshevism against the mortal peril of Trotskyist deviationism—a doctrinal exaggeration meant to vilify and demonize Trotsky.
For Stalin, Trotsky embodied the opposite of his own vision of the professional revolutionary: cosmopolitan, multi-lingual, immensely steeped in literature and philosophy, a brilliant journalist, a masterful stylist, and an electrifying orator. By contrast, Dzhugashvili was dark, dull, and somber—a taciturn introvert pathologically suspicious of everyone and everything. Like Lenin, Trotsky belonged to an international fraternity of Central European socialists. He had known Karl Kautsky, Rosa Luxemburg, and many others. But his inflated sense of superiority was to be his undoing. Trotsky once committed a huge mistake by calling Dzhugasvili “the Central Committee’s most notorious mediocrity.” Stalin never forgot. Narcissistic arrogance ultimately cost Trotsky his life.
During those battles for power, Stalin postured as sober, modest, reliable, and non-vindictive. Zinoviev and Kamenev foolishly thought that they could control or at least guide him with their advice. They were mistaken. The troika disintegrated in 1925. Eleven years later, in the summer of 1936, Zinoviev and Kamenev were charged with surreal crimes, confessed their guilt, and were executed as “rabid dogs.” A former Menshevik, chief prosecutor Andrey Vyshinski, exulted in publicly humiliating these two former closest associates of the party’s founder.
Stalin’s funeral oration is a remarkable document in the history of communism. It was Koba’s opportunity to affirm himself publicly as the defunct leader’s genuine successor. Lenin’s cult was complete. In this emerging theocracy, Stalin acted as pontifex maximus, the only legitimate interpreter of the revolutionary gnosis. The myth of the infallible party, the sole owner of truth, found its counterpart in the myth of the omniscient genius, the visionary leader inspired by the universally purifying, redemptive doctrine bequeathed by Lenin. Any attempt to undermine the ironclad unity of the party leadership represented a political crime and needed to be smashed ruthlessly. Factionalism was a lethal disease.
All these themes were saliently featured in Stalin’s oath delivered in that frigidly cold January in Moscow. In spite of its monotonous discursive repetitions, the litany evolved in a crescendo of quasi-mystical devotion. Each paragraph begins with the words: “Departing from us, Comrade Lenin enjoined us . . .” Lenin emerges from this hagiography as eternally alive, unperishable, immortal. Medieval superstitions triumphed within a political and ideological movement proudly dedicated to materialist philosophical principles. One doesn’t need to endorse Isaac Deutscher’s approach to Bolshevism in order to agree with him that Stalinism was a blending of Marxism with primitive magic.
There is a consensus among Stalin’s great biographers—from Boris Souvarine and Robert Conquest to Robert C. Tucker, Robert Service, and Stephen Kotkin—that all these pledges, uttered with truly religious intensity, were later abandoned, betrayed, abjured. Yet, this does not mean that at the moment he delivered his farewell address Stalin was lying. In his mind, most likely, he remained faithful, until his very last day, to the creed he proclaimed in that January of the great separation, to the mystical absolutism of the vanguard party, the predestined instrument Reason did invent in order to achieve its goals in History and rescue humanity from the valley of tears.
Bolshevism, in its various incarnations, collapsed in Europe, yet it is alive in China, Cuba, and a few other places. Maoism is the Chinese version of Leninism, and its recognition of market mechanisms does not diminish the totalitarian features of the system: one-party dictatorship, ubiquitous propaganda, censorship, secret police, a cult of personality, and the persecution of dissidents. The COVID-19 catastrophe has tragically reconfirmed what Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski once trenchantly observed: The lie is the eternal soul of communism.