BY JACK BARNES
AND STEVE CLARK
Between late September 1922 and early March 1923, the final months of his active life, Vladimir Lenin led a political battle within the leadership of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. At stake was nothing less than whether the party would continue advancing along the political course that had brought the Bolshevik-led workers and peasants of the former tsarist empire to power some five years earlier. That victory had opened the door to the first socialist revolution and ushered in a new historical era with prospects for proletarian-led popular revolution not only in Europe but across Asia and beyond.
There was nothing hypothetical about this battle. Lenin fought to win the partys leadership to implement concrete proposals on matters affecting the lives of tens of millions: control over revenues from the Soviet republics import and export trade; structural changes to facilitate improving the class composition of state and party bodies; a transformation of the organization of agricultural production and exchange; special steps to guarantee equality of rights and self-determination for nations and nationalities formerly oppressed by the tsarist empire; increased political priority and funding of literacy programs and schools as part of broader efforts to open education and culture to the toilers and to party cadres working in government bodies; civil treatment of party members and coworkers as an unqualified precondition for leadership.
The battle was not primarily over economic policy or methods of administration. It was a political fight over the class trajectory of the Soviet republic and Communist Party.
Would the proletariat continue to exercise and strengthen its leadership of state institutions, the party, and economic production and planning? Or would this proletarianization be engulfed and overwhelmed by the growth of petty-bourgeois and newly emerging bourgeois layers, especially in trade and farming, and by their representativeswhether unwitting or notthroughout the state and party apparatus?
How could the worker-peasant alliance on which both the proletarian dictatorship and Communist Party restedand, in fact, the newly formed Communist International, as wellbe reinforced?1 How could that alliance be defended in face of social and economic devastation brought on by civil war and imperialist military intervention? In face of unrelenting pressures resulting from the higher productivity of labor in the imperialist countries as reflected through the world capitalist market? How could working-class leadership of that alliance be fortified, and the peasantrys confidence in the proletariat and support for its course toward socialism be broadened and built on?
What steps had to be taken by the working-class vanguard of the revolution and their party to continue marching forward along the road of proletarian internationalism? Why were the attitudes and conduct of the majority Russian cadres and leaders of the Soviet republic toward oppressed nations and nationalities within the old tsarist empire the acid test of the Communist Partys course toward workers and peasants the world over? Could communists look for new worker and peasant revolutions not only in Europe but elsewhere, following the defeat of the 1918-20 revolutionary wave?
Lenin was seriously ill during the months this political fight unfolded, having suffered a stroke in May 1922. By late summer he had regained some of his strength, as can be seen in the cover photo of this book taken during his convalescence in Gorki, in the countryside south of Moscow. In October and November Lenin returned to many state and party duties for several weeks and presented political reports on three occasions, two of whichone to the fourth congress of the Communist International, and the other to a full session of the Moscow sovietappear in this book. Nonetheless, during the six months that these life-or-death political questions facing toilers in the Soviet republic were being fought out, Lenin was unable to attend most meetings of state or party leadership bodies where the issues were joined, and none at all after late November. Lenin was no longer guiding the day-to-day work of the party and state, as he had done since the revolutions triumph in October 1917.
Following several new strokes in December 1922, Lenin had to rely on dictation to present his views. Opponents of Lenins course in the partys Political Bureau sought to take advantage of doctors orders to severely limit his daily dictation and bar him from receiving visitors. Party leaders Lev Kamenev and Nikolai Bukharin, together with the recently elected general secretary of the Central Committee Joseph Stalin, went so far in late December as to issue orders to Lenins family members and secretaries that they must not give him political news in order to avoid giving Vladimir Ilyich cause for reflection or anxiety.
Despite these obstacles, and with determined assistance from hard-working and disciplined secretaries, Leninin his own hand for as long as he could, and by dictation when that became necessaryconducted the fateful political struggle recorded in his letters, notes, memos, and articles collected in this book.
By late 1920 working people in the young Soviet republic had emerged victorious from nearly three years of a bloody civil war, launched by the combined forces of Russias toppled landlords and capitalists. That civil war had raged alongside the toilers resistance to the invading armies of fourteen imperialist powers, from London and Paris to Tokyo and Washington.
The revolutionary wave that had swept across Europe from 1918 through 1920, under the impulse of the workers and peasants victory in Russia, had been dealt defeats in Germany, Hungary, and Italy. No new soviet republics had been established anywhere outside the boundaries of the old tsarist empire.
The most class-conscious proletarian vanguard of the revolution, the backbone of the Red Army, had suffered devastating casualties from the assaults aimed at restoring bourgeois rule and the old property relations in the Soviet republic. The Communist Partys leading cadres in the industrial working class of Petrograd, Moscow, and other major cities were hit especially hard. Counterrevolutionary armies ravaged the countryside, killing peasants, the big majority of whom had backed the Soviet government in order to block the landlords return, with many volunteering for the Red Army. At least one million Red Army soldiers died in combat or from disease, and millions of peasants and workers fell to wartime famine and epidemics.
We live in a country devastated so severely by war, knocked out of anything like the normal course of life, in a country that has suffered and endured so much, that willy-nilly we are beginning all our [economic] calculations with a very, very small percentage of prewar levels, Lenin told deputies to the Moscow soviet in November 1922. Factory production in 1920 was a third the prewar rate and steel output in 1921 a mere 5 percent of what it had been in 1913. Coal production and rail transport had declined to 30 percent of prewar levels. Average grain output in 1920 and 1921 was about 50 percent of the prewar average, resulting in millions of deaths from starvation in 1921 alone. The imperialist powers imposed what amounted to a virtual boycott of trade and credit on the workers and peasants republic.2
By 1921 the desperate conditions facing working people had produced the gravest crisis in Soviet Russia since the revolution, Lenin told delegates to the fourth congress of the Communist International in November 1922. It brought to light discontent not only among a considerable section of the peasantry but also among the workers, Lenin said. This was the first and, I hope, the last time in the history of Soviet Russia that feeling ran against us among large masses of peasants .
In order to feed working people in city and countryside and restore the peasantrys access to farm implements and light manufactured goods, the Bolshevik leadership implemented a number of postwar economic measures, together called the New Economic Policy (NEP). The Soviet government ended the requisitioning of peasant grain surplusesan emergency measure adopted during the civil war to feed Red Army soldiers at the front and workers in the citiesand replaced it with what was called a tax in kind. Peasants were taxed a percentage of their harvest, at graduated rates taking the least produce from rural toilers with low incomes.
The government legalized small markets, first for farm products and later for other goods. Privately owned enterprises were permitted in rural and small-scale industry. Foreign capitalists were encouraged to invest in concessions in raw materials and industry, operated under government control, although, as Lenin remarked in January 1923, these enterprises had not developed on any considerable scale.
Lenin and other Bolshevik leaders were well aware that these measures, though necessary to revive production and trade, widened class inequalities between and within the working class and peasantry and generated new petty capitalist layers, especially rich peasants and traders. Nepmen was the name derisively given by workers and poor peasants to these price-gouging middlemen.
In face of the growth of these layers across the Soviet republic, Leninin his report to the March 1922 eleventh Communist Party congress, which begins the bookposed the political question to delegates: Who will win? Would the workers and peasants prove capable of defending and advancing their state power? Would they triumph not only over class enemies of the revolution abroad, but above all over rising capitalist layers in their own midst?
No direct [military] onslaught is being made on us now, Lenin said in the report. Nobody is clutching us by the throat . Nevertheless, the fight against capitalist society has become a hundred times more fierce and perilous, because we are not always able to tell enemies from friends.
The leadership of the revolutionary government, Lenin said, must squarely put the question: Wherein lies our strength and what do we lack?
We have quite enough political power, Lenin replied. In fact, as a result of the triumph of the working class and peasantry in the October 1917 Bolshevik-led insurrection, he said, the greatest invention in history has been made; a proletarian type of state has been created. The dictatorship of capitalpolitical rule by a handful of wealthy owners of the land, industry, banks, and major wholesale and retail tradehad been overthrown. Their class dictatorship was replaced by the dictatorship of the proletariat, based on popular councils (soviets in the Russian language) of delegates chosen by millions of workers, peasants, soldiers, and sailors in cities, towns, villages, and ports.
The main economic power is in our hands, Lenin continued. The new government had encouraged peasants to expropriate the landlords estates, nationalized and distributed land to be worked by the tillers themselves, and extended aid and low-cost loans to rural producers. It led workers to take increasing control over the organization of work in factories, mines, and mills, and backed their initiatives to stop factory owners sabotage of production. As the civil war deepened over the course of 1918, the Soviet government mobilized the working class to expropriate the remaining capitalists, consolidate the state monopoly of foreign trade, and initiate centralized economic planning.
But as Lenin told delegates to the March 1922 party congress, during the NEPs first year, the Soviet state did not operate in the way we wanted . The machine refused to obey the hand that guided it. It was like a car that was not going in the direction the driver desired, but being driven by some mysterious, lawless hand, God knows whose, perhaps of a profiteer, or of a private capitalist, or of both. Thats why, while still needing the NEPit remains the main, current, and all-embracing slogan of today, he emphasized more than half a year laterLenin insisted it was time for the party to call a halt to further retreat.
If the measures necessary to do so are not taken, Lenin said, the Communist Party will not lead the proletariat, the proletariat will not lead the masses, and the whole machine will collapse.
It was resistance within the central party leadership to adopting and implementing the measures necessary to halt the retreat that, half a year later, erupted in the multifront political battle by Lenin to reassert the revolutions proletarian course.
(To be continued next week)
2. A useful summary of the first five years of the Soviet workers and peasants republic is contained in the two-volume series by Farrell Dobbs, Revolutionary Continuity: The Early Years (1848-1917) (New York: Pathfinder, 1980) and Revolutionary Continuity: Birth of the Communist Movement (1918-1922) (New York: Pathfinder, 1983).