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The Real Bolshevist

In response to:

Happy Birthday from the November 9, 1967 issue

To the Editors:

In his “Happy Birthday” reflections on the Bolshevik revolution (NYR, Nov. 9, 1967), Mr. George Lichtheim records a provocative opinion and then rushes on to other things. It should not go unchallenged because it involves a question central to any serious evaluation of the revolution’s outcome. His point is that Stalin was the real Leninist—the “real Bolshevik”—because he “was prepared to let millions die of starvation, and ship other millions off to labor camps, if Plan fulfillment demanded it.” His underlying argument is that Stalin’s industrialization and collectivization policies of 1929-1933 were truly in the Leninist tradition, and that old Bolshevism (Leninist Bolshevism) and Stalinism were fully compatible.

The evidence suggests otherwise. Little if anything in pre-1929 Bolshevik history or thought foreshadowed the policies of the first Five Year Plan. The great party debates of the Twenties demonstrate this clearly. For six years, the party’s Left, Right, and Center discussed to distraction every conceivable policy issue related to the fate of Bolshevism in Russia. During those years, when every shade of economic and political opinion was heard, no one advanced a program remotely similar to that subsequently adopted by Stalin. The moderate Bukharinist group had of course something very different in mind. But even Preobrazhensky, who in economic matters occupied the far Left, and whose talk of industrializing Russia by “systematically exploiting” the peasant sector later gained him an unjustified reputation as a precursor of Stalinism, made no place in his program for a forcible or imminent collectivization. Instead, he explicitly rejected force as an acceptable method of industrialization. Those few Bolsheviks who occasionally dreamt aloud of a “second revolution” in the countryside were generally regarded by the major protagonists as the party’s resident mad hatters.

Mr. Lichtheim has gone wrong, I think, because he has not read the full record of Bolshevik thinking, especially that of the Twenties. An example is his reading of Lenin’s “Better Fewer, But Better,”which he cites to validate Stalin’s credentials as the authentic Bolshevik. The article was in fact written and meant to be read as the last in a series of five. (That this was Lenin’s intention is indicated in the articles as well as in the memoir-diary of his secretary Lidiya Fotieva.) Some Bolsheviks did indeed interpret them as a “Testament.” Bukharin, for example, said of them: “Ilyich…saw the inevitable end…he began to dictate his political testament and on the edge of the grave originated things which for decades will determine the policy of our party.” The question, however, was the nature of Lenin’s bequest.

As Mr. Lichtheim rightly notes, the articles contained a tentative statement of socialism in one country especially the second and third, “On Cooperation” and “Our Revolution”). But if he reads the whole “Testament” He will find a strikingly un-Stalinist version of “building socialism.” He will find a gradualist, evolutionist, reformist Leninism; and a Lenin who repudiated the methods associated with war communism (policies, incidentally, only superficially analogous to Stalin’s), who warned against “instilling communism in the countryside,” and who was “forced to a admit a radical change in our entire view of socialism.” Lenin meant, “Now the main emphasis is being changed…being shifted to peaceful organizational ‘cultural’ work.” In short, the “Testament,” and no one seriously contested this in the Twenties, advocated peaceful reformism within Soviet Russia. It was Lenin’s final attempt to legitimatize the conciliatory policies of NEP.

The point is not what one thinks of Leninist Bolshevism or of Stalinism but that they were two radically different phenomena. Perhaps there was no “real” Bolshevism. It was after all a richly diverse movement led by extraordinarily different types of men who expressed very different ideas and inclination. But none of these ideas anticipated in any meaningful way what was to come after 1929. In this sense, it is more appropriate to observe that old Bolshevism was struck a fatal blow by the events of 1929-1933 and that something quite new came to rule Russia. Shortly, beginning in 1936,the old Bolsheviks themselves followed their movement to an early grave.

Stephen F. Cohen

Junior Fellow

Research Institute on Communist


Columbia University

New York City

George Lichtheim replies:

Other people’s opinions are always “provocative.” It is only one’s own views that are sober and statesmanlike, and based on serious study of the entire evidence. Unfortunately one cannot, in a brief review of recent literature about the 1917 upheaval, deal with all the controversies about Stalinism which have now been going on for over a generation. One can only state one’s considered opinion, and then pass on. My considered opinion, after thirty-five years of listening to arguments on the subject and reading a mountain of literature (including all the protocols of all the party congresses in the 1920s) is that Stalin’s policy, broadly speaking, was within the context established by Lenin in 1923. I did not say Lenin would have behaved as Stalin did. What I did say was that Lenin had left Stalin no option: assuming, of course, that the Party dictatorship was to go on. But then all concerned were in agreement on this point. The dispute was over the means.

Mr. Cohen could have strengthened his case by recalling that Stalin and Bukharin, down to the end of 1927, defended the NEP against Trotsky by quoting Lenin’s writing of 1922-23. He could also have cited Professor Nove and Professor Wiles in support of the thesis that Stalinism did a lot of harm to Russia’s economy. In short, he could have revived the entire argument over the “necessity” of Stalin. Since I have myself suggested that there would have been no October Revolution without Lenin, it seems arguable that collectivization would not have happened without Stalin. I merely observe that this does not invalidate the case for Stalin having been within the central Leninist tradition.

No one knows how long Lenin would have adhered to the NEP, or what he would have tried to put in its place. But to call Bolshevism “a richly diverse movement” strikes me as odd. Of course there were debates. It is nice to find that Mr. Cohen does not dispute the point about the 1923 articles having already spelled out the basic conception of “Socialism in One Country.” This goes counter to the silly Trotskyist legend (lately revived by Deutscher) that Bukharin invented this doctrine out of his own head in 1925. However, by 1929 the argument turned on the question whether the regime could survive unless it took the lead in making Russia an industrial power. Stalin adopted one particular solution. That this involved the destruction of the worker-peasant alliance, and ultimately of the old Bolshevik Party itself, is perfectly true, but proves nothing, except that to execute Lenin’s “testament” of 1923 he had to do violence to the illusions still current among Communists who believed that workers and peasants would spontaneously rally to the cause of making capital accumulation the first priority. By the way, if Mr. Cohen really believes that in the 1920s “no one advanced a program remotely similar to that subsequently adopted by Stalin,” he must have missed a lot of the discussion then going on. Maybe he should go back to the sources and refresh his memory. The “super-industrializers” were already active within the State bureaucracy, and the bureaucracy of course was the governing caste: thanks to the elimination of all democratic, self-governing, autonomous forces by the “reformist” Lenin’s party Yes, Stalin destroyed Lenin’s party. What else was he to do, if he was to keep on governing?

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