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 an endless agony. Isolated in a mansion turned into a sanatorium of sorts, a former artistocratic residence located outside Moscow, Lenin was in fact a prisoner of information 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, and also, for his close friends, as Koba.
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 the great strategic choices and bureaucratic appointments. By that moment, all the key institutions of the totalitarian system had been set in place and made to function 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 radicalize them and 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 tragically late. They had lost the battle. The Old Bolsheviks had been eliminated from crucial positions, politically emasculated, replaced by robot-like creatures totally subjugated by the supreme leader, the vozhd (the Bolshevik equivalent of what the Nazi would call the Fuhrer). Among those, some became utterly influential as members of Stalin’s entorurage: Lazar Kaganovich, Georgi Malenkov, Lev Mekhlis, and Nikolay Yezhov.
In 1929, Stalin unleashed the “revolution from above” and implemented Lev 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 appetite of a profitocratic nomenklatura, a parasytical caste claiming to represent the proletarian interests and values.
At the moment of Lenin’s demise, the party elite was beset by a well-camouflaged, yet fierce struggle between 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 helm of the Council of People’s Commissars, and with Grigory Zinoviev, the leader of the Petrograd (soon to be baptized Leningrad) organization and chairman of the Third International, also known as the Comintern, a supra-national institution created in 1919 to promote Leninist revolutionary ideas globally.
Thus, a troika emerged made up of Lenin’s epigones: Kamenev, Zinoviev, and Stalin. They shared a common hostility to Lev 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 Trotky’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, the extremely dangerous Trotskyist deviation. This was in fact a fabrication, a political chimera, a fantasy meant to vilify and demonize Trotsky. The Leninist cult found support also among the members of Nikolay Bukharin’s faction.
Bukharin, much younger than other Bolshevik luminaries, was the editor of “Pravda” and widely seen as the paty’s main theorist. Trotsky’s alleged sins included his pre-1917 non-Bolshevism, his internationalist ardour perceived as irresponsibly adventurous, and a lack of trust in the capacity of the Soviet people to buld up socialism in one country. 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 dismally wrong. The troika disintegrated in 1925. Eleven year 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 remains as an antological piece in the history of world communism. It was Koba’s opportunity to affirm himself publicly as the defunct leader’s genuine successor. Lenin’s cultic divinization became the foundation for the emerging communist logocracy. In this theocracy, Stalin acted as pontifex maximus, the only legitimate interpreter of the revolutionary gnosis. The myth of the infallible party, 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. That text contained, in embryo, the Stalinist gospel. In spite of its monotonous discursive repetitions, the litany evolved in a crescendo of quasi-mystical devotion. Each paragraph begins with the magical words: “Departing from us, Comrade Lenin enjoined us…” Lenin emerges from this hagiographic apotheosis as eternally alive, unperishable, immortal. Lenin has become the vivid presence of a fallacious, temporary absence. Medieval superstitions did thus triumph 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 and primitive magic.
Far away from Moscow, undergoing medical treatment in the Caucasus, Leon Trotsky did not attend the funerals. The triumvirs telegraphed him that the ceremony could not be postponed until he could get back. In reality, they wanted to make sure that the symbolic transfer of the Leninist charisma would take place in the absence of the arch-rival, a political enemy that had to be compromised and neutralized.
For Stalin, Trotsky embodied the opposite of his own vision of the professional revolutionary: cosmopolite, multi-lingual, with immense literary and philosophical readings, a brilliant journalist, a masterful stylist, and an electrifying orateur. Antipodically situated, Dzhugashvili was dark, dull, somber, a taciturn introvert, pathologically suspicious of everyone and everything. Like Lenin, Trotsky belonged to an international fraternity of Central Europeans socialists. He had known Karl Kautsky, Rosa Luxemburg and many others. He had read Goethe, Schiller, Heine, Lassale, and Marx in German. Yet, this superiority was misleading and did not help him in the terrible, unsparing competition with Stalin. He committed a huge mistake by calling Dzhugasvili “the Central Committee’s most notorious mediocrity.” Narcissistic arrogance was Trotsky’s main weakness for which he was to finally pay with his life.
In his “Oath,” Stalin forcefully highlighted the themes that were to energize him in his endeavor to demonstrate that he outdid all his rivals in terms of deep dedication to Lenin’s desires:
“Departing from us, Comrade Lenin enjoined us to hold high and guard the purity of the great title of member of the Party. We vow to you, Comrade Lenin, that we shall fulfill your behest with honor! … Departing from us, Comrade Lenin enjoined us to guard and strengthen the dictatorship of the proletariat. We vow to you, Comrade Lenin, that we shall spare no effort to fulfill this behest with honor! Departing from us, Comrade Lenin enjoined us to strengthen with all our might the alliance of the workers and peasant. We vow to you, Comrade Lenin, that this behest, too, we shall fulfill with honor! Departing from us, Comrade Lenin enjoined us to strengthen and extend the union of republics. We vow to you, Comrade Lenin, that this behest, too, we shall fulfill honor! Departing from us, Comrade Lenin enjoined us to remain faithful to the principles of the Communist International. We vow to you, Comrade Lenin, that we shall not spare our lives to strengthen and extend the union of the working people of the whole world–the Communist International!” (see T. H. Rigby, editor, “Stalin”, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1966, p. 40). It is noteworthy that Stalin addresses Lenin in present tense, thus suggesting that, as a famous slogan put it, “Lenin lived, Lenin lives, Lenin will live!”
Dzhugashvili’s funeral oration consecrated, codified, and petrified the hegemonic narrative about Lenin’s immortality. It became the premise for the new myth of Stalin’s boundless genius and allowed him to masquerade as the only legitimate interpreter of the infallible Leninist doctrine. In brief, as long as the movement follows the Leninist compass, its members will be able to distinguish between North and South, between good and evil, between the road to triumph and the path to disaster. The banner of Leninism is invincible, as Stalin, Mao, Khrushchev, Castro, Che Guevara, Dolores Ibarruri, Nicolae Ceausescu, etc. would have it.
There is a consensus among Stalin’s great biographers, from Boris Souvarine and Robert Conquest to Robert C. Tucker and Robert Service, 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.
Vladimir Tismaneanu is professor of politics at the University of Maryland (College Park) and author, most recently, of ”The Devil in History: Communism, Fascism, and Some Lessons of the Twentieth Century” (University of California Press), a book dedicated to the memory of Leszek Kolakowski, Tony Judt, and Robert C. Tucker. More on this book in the dialogue with Jamie Glazov.
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