Lenin Begins his Last Struggle Against Stalin


27/11/2018 by socialistfight

By Gerry Downing

Image result for Lenin's Last Struggle images

Here is my political assessment of Lenin’s last struggle. [1] It asserts the revolutionary character of the politics of Leninism and Trotskyism against Stalin and Stalinism and to do that I have to begin with Lenin’s last struggle against Stalin.

This involved three issues in particular on which Lenin fought with all the remaining strength he had in the period after his first stroke on 26 May 1922. As he fought for life itself his political struggle grew ever more intense as he understood things were going seriously wrong with the first workers’ state.

The three issues were;

1. The defence of the principle of retaining the monopoly of foreign trade.

2. The fight against the bureaucratisation of the state to keep the revolution alive.

3. The third issue was what is known as the Georgia controversy which spans the entire period of his illness and grew to its more bitter on 6-8 March 1923, on the eve of his third and totally debilitating stroke which took his speech. Here is the course of his illness and struggle:

Timeline of Lenin’s Last Struggle

1922       —          May 26, Lenin suffers his first stroke.

1922       —          November 20, Lenin’s last public speech.

1922       —          December 15, Lenin suffers his second stroke.

1922       —          December 22, Stalin’s telephone call to Krupskaya.

1922      —          December 24, Lenin writes his Testament.

1922       —         December 24, on Stalin’s motion the Politburo orders that Lenin be kept in isolation.

1922       —          December 25, Lenin adds the rider to his Testament about removing Stain.

1922       —          December 30, Formal establishment of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR).

1923       —          March 2, Lenin writes his last document; Better Fewer, But Better, against the rising bureaucracy.

1923       —          March 9, Lenin suffers his third stroke. Incapacitated now and no longer able to speak.

1924       —          January 21, Lenin dies from the fourth stroke.


  1. Defending the monopoly of foreign trade

The first issue was the defence of the monopoly of foreign trade. In defending this he formed a close alliance with Trotsky and inflicted a signal defeat on Stalin, who was forced to withdraw his proposal to modify this monopoly. Of course, this defended the whole principle of state planning and blocked the direct penetration of imperialist transnational corporations into the Soviet economy. It followed repeated warnings from Lenin about the dangers from the New Economic Policy (NEP) introduced in March 1921 at the Tenth Congress, which also banned factions following the Kronstadt revolt. This became a live issue from late 1921.

As Tony Cliff explains:

“The monopoly of foreign trade had been established on 22 April 1918. During the civil war the question of its abolition never arose (not that there was any foreign trade to speak of). With the development of the NEP, however, the monopoly of foreign trade came under pressure due to the growing influence of private trade. Towards the end of 1921 Miliutin, the Soviet delegate to the Baltic Economic Conference in Riga, promised this monopoly would be abolished. A number of other Bolshevik leaders supported Miliutin in this. Sokolnikov, Bukharin and Piatakov opposed the retention of the foreign trade monopoly (the future Right Bolsheviks – GD); Zinoviev, Kamenev and Stalin wanted it relaxed (the Centrists- GD). On 3 March 1922 Lenin wrote to Kamenev:

‘The foreigners are already buying our officials with bribes, and carting out what is left of Russia. They may well succeed. [We must] publish right away … a firm, cold, fierce statement that we do not intend to retreat in the economy any further, and that those who attempt to cheat us (or circumvent the monopoly etc.) will face terrorism.’ [2]

On 15 May Lenin wrote a draft decision for the politburo on the subject, stating: ‘The central committee reaffirms the monopoly of foreign trade.’ [3] He also wrote in a letter to Stalin that ‘a formal ban should be put on all talk and negotiations and commissions … concerning the relaxation of the foreign trade monopoly.’ Stalin wrote on Lenin’s letter: ‘I have no objection to a “formal ban” on measures to mitigate the foreign trade monopoly at the present stage. All the same, I think that mitigation is becoming indispensable.’ [4]

The discussion continued. On 22 May Lenin’s theses were adopted by the politburo. But later, during his absence after the stroke that paralysed him on 25 May, the opponents of the monopoly won the day. On 6 October a plenum of the central committee ratified Sokolnikov’s proposal that the monopoly should be considerably relaxed. Lenin reacted sharply, and on 16 October the central committee agreed to put the question on the agenda again at the next plenum, to be held on 25 December.

On 11 October Lenin (now invalided – GD) asked Trotsky to confer with him on this problem in particular. Two days earlier he had sent an urgent letter to all politburo members demanding the reversal of the decision. Once again Stalin appended a note to Lenin’s letter: ‘Comrade Lenin’s letter has not made me change my mind as to the correctness of the decision of the plenum of the central committee of 6 October concerning foreign trade.’ [5] The lion was mortally wounded, and the jackal raised his head.

On 12 December Lenin suggested to Trotsky that they should join forces in defence of the foreign trade monopoly: ‘Comrade Trotsky: I am sending you Krestinsky’s letter. Write me as soon as possible whether you agree: at the plenum, I am going to fight for the monopoly. What about you? Yours, Lenin.’ [6]

Three days later, in a letter to Stalin, Lenin wrote: ‘I have … come to an agreement with Trotsky on the defence of my views on the monopoly of foreign trade.’ He added: ‘… any further vacillation over this extremely important question is absolutely impermissible and will wreck all our work.’ [7]

The Lenin-Trotsky partnership on the question of the monopoly led the central committee to reverse its decision of 6 October. On 21 December, therefore, Lenin could write to Trotsky: ‘It looks as though it has been possible to take the position without a single shot, by a simple manoeuvre. I suggest that we should not stop and should continue the offensive.’” [8] [9]

In the NEP from 1921 foreign trade, banks and heavy industry would stay in state hands, the rest was privatized. So economic planning became integral to the monopoly of foreign trade. On this issue Lenin came around to Trotsky’s position on upgrading the role of the state planning body Gosplan. This was further developed by the Left Opposition leader Preobrazenski and others from 1923 on. The panic forced collectivisation of 1928-29 adopted the programme of the Left Opposition on the matter of state planning but in such an appalling unplanned and bureaucratic fashion that it caused the disastrous famine of 1931-32.

Foreign trade monopoly is one of the central features of a workers’ state and one cannot survive long without this. This is also a reproach to those who believe that those like China and Vietnam remain workers’ states despite having abandoned this monopoly by the early 1990s. The fact that it took the combined political offensive of the two central leaders of the Russian Revolution, Lenin, and Trotsky, to reverse the disastrous course set by Stalin showed two things.

Firstly the growing strength of Stalin within the leadership. And secondly the declining authority of both Lenin and Trotsky within the Political Bureau and the leadership itself. This was their second last victory, the basis for the founding of the USSR on 22 December 1922 was the last. From that point on Stalin, and those who allied with him, won every battle. The forward thrust of the revolution itself was waning, its revolutionary political consciousness was declining and compromise with imperialism was becoming the wisdom of the leading party figures. But certainly without the retention of the monopoly of foreign trade and the extension of state planning, both joint mutually-dependent policies of Lenin and Trotsky, the USSR could not have survived until 1991.

  1. The Fight against growing bureaucratisation

We will take this issue next although it emerged last of the three for Lenin; the Georgia controversy spans the whole period of his illness and it has been argued that it was the absence of pressing matters of state and the struggle on the foreign trade monopoly that alerted Lenin to the dangers posed by Stalin’s rise in particular and he now took on board Trotsky’s criticisms of the Workers’ and Peasants’ Inspectorate (Rabkrin) led by Stalin.

Lenin became aware of the dangers of bureaucratisation from as early as 1919 and took action against it. He formed the Rabkrin and Stalin was appointed to head it. It was a disastrous choice because the free access visits this afforded the functionaries appointed by Stalin to every other official body and commission without warning or appointment gave him an ideal weapon to impose his own practices and prejudices on all state bodies. In the name of fighting the bureaucratisation of the state Stalin imposed it. Trotsky attacked the practices of Rabkrin in 1920 but Lenin did not support him. But in his isolation, Lenin recognised the dangers fully and penned two documents against them. The first was How we should reorganise the Workers’ and Peasants’ Inspection on 23 January 1923:

“Our Central Committee has grown into a strictly centralised and highly authoritative group, but the conditions under which this group is working are not concurrent with its authority… the bureaucratic apparatus of the Soviet state is nearly identical to the czarist government, save for a slightly “touched up surface”. [10]

Lenin suggests combining the Workers’ and Peasants’ Inspection with the Central Control Commission, and decreasing the former’s membership to improve efficiency while increasing the latter’s membership with more peasants and workers. Lenin stresses that the powers of the increasingly powerful Politburo be governed by the Workers’ and Peasants’ Inspection. This was followed on 2 March 1923 by Lenin’s final political documents, Better Fewer but Better. He asserts:

Let us say frankly that the People’s Commissariat of the Workers’ and Peasants’ Inspection does not at present enjoy the slightest authority. Everybody knows that no other institutions are worse organised than those of our Workers’ and Peasants’ Inspection, and that under present conditions nothing can be expected from this People’s Commissariat. [11]

These were direct attacks on Stalin, who now controlled the Political Bureau. They did not want to publish it; remember Lenin was a semi-invalid again after his second stroke on 15 December 1922. Trotsky recounts:

“How did the Political Bureau react to Lenin’s project for the reorganisation of Rabkrin? Comrade Bukharin hesitated to print Lenin’s article [Better Fewer, but Better], while Lenin, on his side, insisted upon its immediate appearance. N.K. Krupskaya told me by telephone and asked me to take steps to get it printed as soon as possible. At the meeting of the Political Bureau, called immediately upon my demand, all those present – comrades Stalin, Molotov, Kuibyshev, Rykov, Kahin, Bukharin – were not only against comrade Lenin’s plan but against the very printing of the article.

The members of the secretariat were particularly harsh and categorical in their opposition. In view of the insistent demand of comrade Lenin that the article should be shown to him in print, comrade Kuibyshev, afterwards the head of Rabkrin, proposed at the above-mentioned session of the Political Bureau that one special number of Pravda should be printed with Lenin’s article and shown to him in order to placate him, while the article itself should be concealed from the party … I was supported only by comrade Kamenev, who appeared at the meeting of the Political Bureau almost an hour late. The chief argument that induced them to print the article was that an article by Lenin could not be concealed from the party in any case.” [12]

The article was published in Pravda on 4 March, three days before Lenin’s third debilitating stroke. The Georgian controversy also agitated him in these final days of his political activity and it is to this issue we must now turn as it is the most important section from the standpoint of our original task; to expose the disastrous effects of Stalin’s policies in the formally independent Soviet Republics of Georgia, Ukraine, Belorussia, Armenia and Azerbaidzhan and to counterpose the policies of Lenin, Bolshevism and Trotsky to these.

Anastas Mikoyan, Joseph Stalin and Grigol Ordzhonikidze in Tiflis (now Tbilisi), in 1925, having been saved by Lenin’s death on 21 January 1924
  1. The Georgia controversy – the rights of nations to self-determination

Lenin’s last struggle is centrally concerned with the rights of nations to self-determination, concentrated in the Georgia controversy against Stalin in particular. The last letter that he wrote, on 6 March 1923, on the eve of his debilitating third stroke, showed his personal commitment to this question, now given priority in his mind over all others:

To P.G. Mdivani, F.Y. Makharadze and others (leaders of the Georgian opposition):

Top Secret

Copy to Comrades Trotsky and Kamenev

Dear Comrades:

I am following your case with all my heart. I am indignant over Ordzhonikidze’s rudeness and the connivance of Stalin and Dzerzhinsky. I am preparing for you notes and a speech. Respectfully yours,

Lenin [13]

Of course the central thrust of Lenin’s argument from 1913 against the Austro-Marxists, the rights of nations not only to autonomy but to separate if they wished, is here defended as he had done also against Rosa Luxemburg in 1915 [14] and he never yielded on this aspect of the matter. In a recent controversy with the International Bolshevik Tendency [15] we took issue with their use of the following quote from Lenin of 1913:

‘‘Marxism cannot be reconciled with nationalism, be it even of the ‘most just’, ‘purest’, most refined and civilised brand. In place of all forms of nationalism Marxism advances internationalism…. [16]

We would contend that Lenin developed his position on the national question from 1913 when he praised Stalin’s very Second International mechanical work on the question. [17] Certainly by 1920 and the Second Congress of the Communist International Lenin was sounding very different from this quote, which certainly does not accurately reflect his position on the question even in 1913:

“First, what is the most important, the fundamental idea of our theses? The distinction between oppressed and oppressor nations. We emphasize this distinction–in diametric contrast to the Second International and bourgeois democracy. In the epoch of imperialism, it is particularly important for the proletariat and the Communist International to establish the concrete economic facts and in the solution of all colonial and national questions, to proceed not from abstract postulates but from concrete realities.

The characteristic feature of imperialism is that the whole world, as we see, is now divided into a large number of oppressed nations and an insignificant number of oppressor nations, which command colossal wealth and powerful armed forces. The overwhelming majority of the world’s population, more than a thousand million people, and very probably 1,250 million–if we take the world’s total population at 1,750 million–or about seventy per cent of the world’s population, belong to the oppressed nations, which are either in a state of direct colonial dependence or are semi-colonies such as Persia, Turkey and China, or else, having been defeated by the armies of a big imperialist power, have become greatly dependent on that power by virtue of peace treaties. . . [18]

We should emphasise here that Lenin’s distinction is between oppressed and oppressor nations and he does not limit this to the conflicts between imperialism and colonial and semi-colonial peoples. He did not, of course, identify the USSR as an imperialist state but he understood that, nevertheless, its entire history was of exploiting and oppressing the nations in the Russian Empire and its immediate periphery and he knew this reactionary attitude was still extant and dangerous, even in the ranks of the Bolsheviks and in its leadership. So Lenin says on 31 December 1922: “Unless Great Russian chauvinism was fought to the death, the party’s support for anti-imperialist national liberation movements would be completely hypocritical: we ourselves lapse … into imperialist attitudes towards oppressed nationalities”. This is his most relevant quote for the situation in the Ukraine today; it is this quote that must inform our attitude to Vladimir Putin.

We observe this also in the leading nations of other former semi-feudal Empires where the national liberation movements from the mid-19th century to WWI were directed in part at least from the top down by semi-feudal aristocratic landlord and capitalist forces. We would cite Lithuania, Poland, Hungary, Turkey, Greece, Iran, Serbia and Croatia to mention a few who have no global finance capital to speak of yet tend to see themselves as superior to their neighbour, of a higher culture, intelligence etc. This is not to give credence to the totally false line that dubs advanced semi-colonial nations “sub-imperialist” (Argentina, Iraq, etc.) to avoid giving them unconditional supports in conflict and wars against imperialism and its proxies.

The Red Army in Tiflis (now Tbilisi), in 1921.

Look at how Christian Rakovsky handles the national question in line with the developments made by Lenin as recounted by Marcel Liebman:

Refusing to be content with ‘an abstract presentation of the question of nationalism in general’, he (Lenin – GD) insisted that ‘a distinction must necessarily be made between the nationalism of an oppressor nation and that of an oppressed nation, the nationalism of a big nation and that of a small nation’. And he declared that, ‘in respect of the second kind of nationalism, we, nationals of a big nation, have nearly always been guilty, in historic practice, of an infinite number of cases of violence; furthermore, we commit violence and insult an infinite number of times without noticing it.’ Lenin concluded that ‘internationalism on the part of oppressors or “great” nations, as they are called (though they are great only in their violence, only great as bullies), must consist not only in the observance of the formal equality of nations but even in an inequality of the oppressor nation, the great nation, that must make up for the inequality which obtains in actual practice.’ As regards relations with Georgia and with the national minorities as a whole, he advised: ‘it is better to overdo rather than underdo the concessions and leniency toward the national minorities? [19]

Note how different all this is from Stalin, from the Lenin of 1913, if we take that one-sidedly quote as representative of his whole position. It explains why Lenin that took such umbrage at Stalin’s Great Russian Chauvinism, as he called it, in regard to Georgia from 1922 until his death in 1924. This passage relates how Rakovsky himself developed his views on the subject; these views then became those of the Left Opposition and Trotsky’s own views:

“What was the specific problem which the national question posed for the Communist Party in the Soviet Union according to Rakovsky? In 1919, in the article already mentioned (Relations between the Republics), Rakovsky had analysed nationalism and national culture as specific to the bourgeois state order, an extension of the concept of “private ownership” to the level of the state. Therefore he saw the elimination of capitalist private property as undermining once and for all the basis of specifically “national” consciousness and culture, and he saw the federal and centralizing principle as a characteristic of the socialist order. The problem had presented itself then in terms of the “suppression” of national prejudice, national boundaries etc., and he had been very optimistic in 1919 about the pace at which those would disappear. At the Twelfth Congress that optimism had disappeared: “the more often we discuss this question the further away we are from a communist understanding and solution of the national problem”.

“There were many in the party in 1923 who believed that the national problem had already been solved. Rakovsky asked: “Tell me, comrades, how many of you can explain in what way the October revolution solved the nationalities question?” It did not resolve it, nor could it have. National culture does not cease to exist because the state is a workers’ state or because the economy is no longer privately owned. National culture is “the only way” through which the working and peasant masses will gain access to political and cultural life. “And hand in hand with national consciousness comes that feeling of equality which Lenin speaks of in his memorandum. Because of centuries of tsarist domination, the nationalities are now experiencing that feeling of equality in a much deeper and stronger way than we think.” So the problem posed before the Communist Party was not one of the suppression or “overcoming” of national consciousness. “It (the party) faces the question of how to find the bond between proletarian communist internationalism and the national development of wide layers of the peasant masse with their aspirations for a national life, for their own national culture, for their own national state.” [20]

File:Rakovsky and Stamboliyski in Genoa.jpg

Rakovsky and Stamboliyski in Genoa, May 1922

Lenin criticised the actions of Felix Dzerzhinsky, Grigoriy Ordzhonikidze, and Stalin in his 31 December 1922 article “Nationalities Issue” or about “Autonomization” in the “Georgian Affair”, accusing them of “Great Russian chauvinism”:

“It is quite natural that in such circumstances the “freedom to secede from the union” by which we justify ourselves will be a mere scrap of paper, unable to defend the non-Russians from the onslaught of that really Russian man, the Great-Russian chauvinist, in substance a rascal and a tyrant, such as the typical Russian bureaucrat is. There is no doubt that the infinitesimal percentage of Soviet and sovietised workers will drown in that tide of chauvinistic Great-Russian riffraff like a fly in milk.

“I think that a fatal role was played here by hurry and the administrative impetuousness of Stalin and also his infatuation with the renowned “social-nationalism”. Infatuation in politics generally and usually plays the worst role… I think that Stalin’s haste and his infatuation with pure administration, together with his spite against the notorious “nationalist-socialism” [Stalin criticised the minority nations for not being “internationalist” because they did want to unite with Russia], played a fatal role here. In politics spite generally plays the basest of roles…” [21]

Lenin’s struggle against Great Russian Chauvinism began as soon as the Civil War was over. Tony Cliff recounts that at the Ninth Party Congress in March 1920 Lenin showed he was already aware of the danger:

‘Scratch some communists, and you will find Great Russian chauvinists.’ (Cliff’s Endnotes) [22]At the Tenth Party Congress in March 1921, Sakharov, a delegate from Turkestan, analysed the composition of the local party and demanded a more active struggle against both Great Russian chauvinism and Moslem nationalism.[23] The Tenth Congress was first to recognise Great Russian chauvinism in the Communist apparatus by including in its resolutions a strongly worded condemnation of it. [24]

On 2 November 1920 Trotsky, in a message to Lenin and the Politburo, bluntly stated that the Soviet administration in the Ukraine had from the outset been based on people sent from Moscow and not on local elections:

“The Soviet regime in the Ukraine has maintained itself in being up to now (but feebly at that) largely by virtue of the authority of Moscow, the Great-Russian Communists and the Russian Red Army … Economically the Ukraine still is the embodiment of anarchy, sheltering under the bureaucratic centralism of Moscow.” [25]

He demanded a radical break with this method of government.

At the Eleventh Party Congress (March-April 1922) the veteran Ukrainian Bolshevik, N. Skrypnik, argued that the Communist Party apparatus had been infiltrated by adherents of Smena Vekh [26]ready to violate the party’s solemn pledge to defend Ukrainian independence. ‘The one and indivisible Russia is not our slogan’, he exclaimed – at which point a voice from the audience shouted back ominously: ‘The one and indivisible Communist Party!’ [27]

So we see already by the 11th party Congress the reference to National Bolshevism (Smena Vekh) and its dangers as identified and fought against by Lenin [28] was now dismissed in favour of bureaucratic ease of operation in that unchecked heckle from the audience. National Bolshevism was a movement that was inspired by a novel by Nikolay Vasilyevich Ustryalov (November 25, 1890 – September 14, 1937) and became popular with some White Russians. Ustryalov was increasing inspired by Stalin, seeing the USSR under him as a radish, red on the outside and white inside. He was shot in the great purges in 1937, one of the very few counter-revolutionaries to suffer such a fate; the vast majority of the victims were the leaders and participators in the Russian Revolution, the living continuity of which Stalin was eager to obliterate to demonstrate to imperialism that he was no revolutionary and presented them with no threat or danger whatsoever.

The Treaty of Moscow, signed on 7 May 1920, recognised the independence of Georgia in line with Lenin’s principles on self-determination. But on 14 February 1921 Stalin tricked Lenin into agreeing to the invasion of the country, although both he and Trotsky had opposed this up to then. Stalin reported that there was a revolutionary uprising of workers and peasants and the Red Army was obliged to give it support. In fact, the skirmishes were engineered and there was no advanced revolutionary situation. As the Encyclopedia of Marxism recounts:

In February 1921, with the outbreak of popular uprisings against the Menshevik government there, the Red Army invaded to assist. The extent and popularity of the uprising, however, had been exaggerated and it took the Red Army ten days of heavy fighting to enter Tiflis, the Georgian capital.

Trotsky, head of the Red Army, had not ordered nor even been informed of the invasion of Georgia, which was mainly instigated and carried out by Stalin (General Secretary) and Ordzhonikidze (Chief commissar of the Revolutionary War Council of the Caucasus). Trotsky had disagreed with the invasion explaining that the population would be able to carry the revolution. Lenin, agreed to the invasion, however urged extreme caution in its implementation in order to ensure that the “Russian bully” would help and not dominate, the Georgian revolution.

Lenin later wrote in one of his last letters to the Congress of Soviets, that maintaining the right to autonomy and equality for the national minorities of Russia was absolutely essential. In the Georgian Incident, he recalled, Russian chauvinism and the practices of Stalin violated the most primary base of proletarian class solidarity, by exerting the interests of a big nation over a smaller one. (See: On the Question of Nationalities or “Autonomisation”). [29]

From this point, the crisis in Georgia grew ever more serious. The question of the rights of nations to self-determination was intimately bound up with the manner of the founding of the USSR itself on 30 December 1922. When Stalin drafted the resolution for the commission set up to found the USSR he treated the government of the Russian Socialist Federal Soviet Republic (RSFSR) as the real government of all six republics and did not recognise their legally established independence.

Stalin via his representative, Ordzhonikidze, sought to establish a Caucasian Federation consisting of Georgia, Azerbaidzhan and Armenia. The Georgian Communist Party central committee opposed this and a conflict arose between them and Ordzhonikidze. The entire Georgian central committee resigned on 22 October. Ordzhonikize appointed a new Central Committee of yes men. The struggle went on. Ordzhonikidze then assaulted a supporter of Mdivani, the Georgian leader who had resigned. The incident was witnessed by Rykov, a Politburo member and Lenin’s deputy, who reported it to Lenin. Reports of further threats of violence against the old Georgian leadership reached Lenin. Stalin now ordered the exile of all the old Georgian Central Committee from Georgia.

On hearing of this Lenin was absolutely furious. By the end of December, he was able to function almost normally and he began a merciless political assault on Stalin, it is he who is the prime “rascal and a tyrant” referred to by Lenin here, already quoted:

I suppose I have been very remiss with respect to the workers of Russia for not having intervened energetically and decisively enough in the notorious question of autonomisation, which, it appears, is officially called the question of the union of Soviet Socialist Republics … It is said that a united apparatus was needed. Where did that assurance come from? Did it not come from that same Russian apparatus which … we took over from Tsarism and slightly anointed with Soviet oil? … It is quite natural that in such circumstances the ‘freedom to secede from the union’ by which we justify ourselves will be a mere scrap of paper, unable to defend the non-Russians from the onslaught of that really Russian man, the Great Russian chauvinist, in substance a rascal and a tyrant, such as the typical Russian bureaucrat is. There is no doubt that the infinitesimal percentage of Soviet and Sovietised will drown in that tide of chauvinistic Great Russian riff-raff like a fly in milk … were we careful enough to take measures to provide the non-Russians with a real safeguard against the truly Russian bully? I do not think we took such measures although we could and should have done so. I think that Stalin’s haste and his infatuation with pure administration, together with his spite against the notorious ‘nationalist-socialism’ played a fatal role here. In politics spite generally plays the basest of roles. [30]

On 31 December Lenin wrote:

Exemplary punishment must be inflicted on Comrade Ordzhonikidze. The political responsibility for all this truly Great Russian nationalist campaign must, of course, be laid on Stalin and Dzerzhinsky [the head of the Cheka]. Unless Great Russian chauvinism was fought to the death, the party’s support for anti-imperialist national liberation movements would be completely hypocritical: we ourselves lapse … into imperialist attitudes towards oppressed nationalities, thus undermining all our principled sincerity, all our principled defence of the struggle against imperialism! [31]

Grigory Ordzhonikidze, close ally of Stalin, saved by Lenin’s death

Tony Cliff explains the struggle leading up to the founding of the USSR on 30 December 1922:

Although the All-Russian Congress of Soviets had supreme authority, in periods between its sessions its powers were passed to VTsIK.), Sovnarkom and the Council of Labour and Defence (STO) were to take over the functions of the leading bodies of the six republics. Key commissariats (foreign affairs and foreign trade, military affairs, transport and communications) were to be taken over by the Russian government, while others (finance, labour and national economy) had to operate under the control of the corresponding agencies of RSFSR; only an insignificant few were to be entrusted entirely to the autonomous republics. Nearly all the national commissariats were to become mere extensions of the Moscow administration.

Point Six of the resolution proposed that the documents should be kept secret until the various VTsIKs agreed: there was to be no consultation of congresses of soviets, let alone of the masses of workers and peasants. [32]

On 15 September 1922 the central committee of the Georgian Communist Party rejected this resolution. The party secretariat – which in this case meant Stalin – then acted improperly, by sending the commission’s resolution to all members and candidate members of the party central committee without the question having been considered by the politburo. To add insult to injury on 28 August, even before his plans had been discussed by the politburo, Stalin appears to have sent a telegram to Mdivani, a leader of the Georgian opposition to Stalin, informing him that the decisions of the highest governing bodies of the RSFSR (VTsIK, Sovnarkom and STO) were henceforth binding on all the republics. [33]

When Lenin received the commission’s resolution he was furious. It violated any concept of national equality, and openly formalised the hegemony of the RSFSR over the other republics. On 26 September he wrote to Kamenev: ‘… we consider ourselves, the Ukrainian SSR and others, equal, and enter with them, on an equal basis, into a new union, a new federation, the Union of the Soviet Republics of Europe and Asia.’ He demanded the creation of an All-Union Central Executive Committee, Sovnarkom and STO, to supersede those of the RSFSR. [34]

Stalin was truculent and opposed the sick old man. He and Kamenev, probably at a meeting of the politburo, exchanged two brief notes on the subject of Lenin’s memorandum. Kamenev’s note reads: ‘Ilyich is going to war to defend independence.’ Stalin replied: ‘In my opinion we have to be firm against Lenin.’ [35]

On 27 September Stalin replied to Lenin. Among other hurtful remarks he accused Lenin of ‘national liberalism’. [36] On 6 October Lenin wrote a memorandum to the politburo, On Combating Dominant National Chauvinism: “I declare war to the death on dominant national chauvinism … It must be absolutely insisted that the Union Central Executive Committee should be presided over in turn by a Russian, Ukrainian, Georgian, etc. Absolutely!” [37]

Recognising that he would be in a minority on the central committee, Stalin accepted Lenin’s amendment to the commission’s resolution. (Cliff’s footnotes) [38]

So the USSR was founded on the basis of formally recognising the rights of nations to self-determination as a result of Lenin’s struggle. This did not mean that Stalin had any intention of carrying out this policy, with which he profoundly disagreed. And he did not when his growing power and Lenin’s illness eventually freed him from Leninism and the politics of revolutionary internationalism.

By late December, most likely between the 24 December, when he wrote his Testament, and the 25t,h when he added the bit that said, “Stalin is too rude and this defect….”, it is fair to assume he had heard of the infamous telephone call from Stalin to his wife Krupskaya on 22 December. It is also likely that the grosser details of what Stalin said to her did not reach his ears until she told him on 5 March 1923, just two days before his third stroke when he threatened to break personal relations with Stalin. The following is the excerpt in the Collected Works on the incident:
Top secret


Copy to Comrades Kamenev and Zinoviev

Dear Comrade Stalin:

You have been so rude as to summon my wife to the telephone and use bad language. Although she had told   you that she was prepared to forget this, the fact nevertheless became known through her to Zinoviev and Kamenev. I have no intention of forgetting so easily what has been done against me, and it goes without saying that what has been done against my wife I consider having been done against me as well. I ask you, therefore, to think it over whether you are prepared to withdraw what you have said and to make your apologies, or whether you prefer that relations between us should be broken off.

Respectfully yours, Lenin, March 5, 1923


[1] A reference to the following fact. After Lenin, with the permission of his doctors, had, on December 21, 1922, dictated a letter to Trotsky on the foreign trade monopoly (see this volume, Document 811), J. V. Stalin, whom a C.C. Plenum decision of December 18 had made personally responsible for the observance of the medical regimen ordered for Lenin, used offensive language   against Nadezhda Krupskaya and threatened to take the case to the Control Commission for having taken down the said letter. On December 23, 1922, Krupskaya sent Kamenev a letter asking for protection from “the gross interference in my personal life, offensive language and threats”.

Nadezhda Krupskaya apparently told Lenin of this fact in early March 1923. Having learned about this Lenin dictated the document here published. Maria Ulyanova (Lenin’s sister) later wrote in a letter to the presidium of the July (1926) Joint Plenum of the Central Committee and the Central Control Commission of the R.C.P.(B.), at which the question had been raised by G. Y. Zinoviev, one of the leaders of the “new opposition”, that Stalin had offered his apologies. [39]

Of course, we can never know exactly what was said between them but we do know that it profoundly upset Krupskaya. He was ‘rude’ to her, she revealed and much more details to Lenin’s sister and to Zinoviev and Kamenev. One detail of what Krupskaya claimed he said circulated in the top echelons of the Bolsheviks. Stalin had called her “a syphilitic whore,” she said and all the leading Bolsheviks would have immediately understood that the insult was directed at Lenin himself and not at Krupskaya in the first place.

Lenin died on 21 January 1924 having suffered a fourth and fatal stroke, the third stroke took his speech some ten months previously on 9 March. Persistent rumours had it that it was not just the August 1918 bullets from Fanny Kaplan and those strokes that killed him. Lenin, it was claimed at the time and on several occasions since, suffered from syphilis since an encounter with a prostitute in Paris in the early years of the century, hence his childlessness. Whatever the truth or otherwise of the rumour its existence cannot be denied. And that was the rumour to which Stalin’s vile insult referred.

What had emboldened and/or outraged Stalin so much that it caused him to forsake his customary deference to Lenin? Some have speculated that he now felt that supreme power was in his grasp and he felt free to voice the contempt bred of inferiority he had always felt for Lenin. His instincts had caused him to defer to Lenin after April 1917 when he was caught on the wrong side of the April Theses controversy; as editor of Pravda which was supporting the Provisional Government in pursuing the war. When Kamenev, Stalin and Matvei Muranov returned from Siberian exile on 12 March they took over the editorial board – starting with 15 March. [40]

They displaced Shlyapnikov and Molotov as editors of Pravda, who had held the correct defeatist line on the war; they were opposed to the liberal Russian Provisional Government and immediately supported Lenin’s April Theses when he arrived back the following month. Under Kamenev’s and Stalin’s influence, Pravda took a conciliatory tone towards the Provisional Government—”insofar as it struggles against reaction or counter-revolution”—and called for a unification conference with the internationalist wing of the Mensheviks. On March 14, Kamenev wrote in his first editorial: “What purpose would it serve to speed things up, when things were already taking place at such a rapid pace?” [41] And on 15 March he supported the war effort: “When army faces army, it would be the most insane policy to suggest to one of those armies to lay down its arms and go home. This would not be a policy of peace, but a policy of slavery, which would be rejected with disgust by a free people”. [42]

But when Lenin and Trotsky won that argument and opened the road for the second revolution the shook the world it left Kamenev and Stalin in disgrace; Kamenev and Zinoviev went so far as to publicly oppose the October insurrection, putting the lives of the entire Bolshevik leadership in danger. This is directly referred to by Lenin is his Testament below. Stalin did not participate in this adventure but he was still in disgrace and moreover was clearly not of the calibre of the other two as a revolutionary, a ‘third rate leader’ as Trotsky later characterised him who played no significant part in the actual revolution itself. And this was in the context of the Georgia controversy, where Lenin attacked Stalin and two other Bolshevik leaders, Dzerzhinsky and Ordzhonikidze ’. Lenin’s last struggle was on the national question, hence its relevance to Ukraine. The conflict was bitter, and Lenin did not spare his opponents in his struggle, as was his custom.

Marcel Liebman describes the last few days of Lenin’s political life: Leninism under Lenin, Epilogue: The End of Lenin (pp. 417-425):

After the ‘Testament’ had been written, the Georgian affair continued its course. Lenin’s four secretaries formed themselves, at his request, into a ‘clandestine commission’ with the task of completing a dossier that was already overwhelming. On March 3rd the commission presented its conclusions. We do not know what they were. But they evidently seemed to Lenin to justify the haste with which he proceeded to open his last campaign. On March 5th and 6th he dictated three letters, one after the other, which he told his doctors were just ‘business letters’, but which were in fact of major importance. In the first of them, he appealed to Trotsky to ‘undertake the defence of the Georgian case in the Party C.C.’, adding: ‘I would feel at ease if you agreed to undertake its defence.’ [43] On the same day he sent Stalin the letter (already quoted) in which he threatened to break off relations with him. [44]On March 6th he sent a ‘top secret’ note to the Georgian Communist leaders. This was the first such note, and also the last. ‘I am following your case with all my heart,’ wrote Lenin. ‘I am indignant over Ordzhonikidze’s rudeness and the connivance of Stalin and Dzerzhinsky. I am preparing for you notes and a speech.’ [45]

As Moshe Lewin remarks, these last two days March 5th and 6th, 1923 of Lenin’s active life bore ‘the character of a major struggle But Lenin’s declining health did not allow him to live much longer in such a state of emotional and nervous tension. His illness grew rapidly more serious. [46] On March 6th, Krupskaya told Kamenev that Lenin had resolved ‘to crush Stalin politically? [47]The next day, March 7th, a new attack of arteriosclerosis put an end to Lenin’s active life. His political death saved Stalin‘s career and meant the doom of Leninism. [48]

Appendix, Lenin’s Testament:

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 the comrades think about a way of removing Staling 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. This circumstance may appear to be a negligible detail. But I think that from the standpoint of safeguards against a split, and from the standpoint of what I wrote above about the relationship between Stalin and Trotsky, it is not a detail, or it is a detail which can assume decisive importance.

By the stability of the Central Committee, of which I spoke above, I mean measures against a split, as far as such measures can at all be taken. For, of course, the whiteguard in Russkaya Mys (it seems to have been S. S. Oldenburg) was right when, first, in the whiteguards’ game against Soviet Russia he banked on a split in our Party, and when, secondly, he banked on grave differences in our Party to cause that split.

Our Party relies on two classes and therefore its instability would be possible and its downfall inevitable if there were no agreement between those two classes. In that event, this or that measure, and generally all talk about the stability of our C.C., would be futile. No measures of any kind could prevent a split in such a case. But I hope that this is too remote a future and too improbable an event to talk about.

I have in mind stability as a guarantee against a split in the immediate future, and I intend to deal here with a few ideas concerning personal qualities.

I think that from this standpoint, the prime factors in the question of stability are such members of the C.C. as Stalin and Trotsky. I think relations between them make up the greater part of the danger of a split, which could be avoided, and this purpose, in my opinion, would be served, among other things, by increasing the number of C.C. members to 50 or 100.

Comrade Stalin, having become Secretary-General, has unlimited authority concentrated in his hands, and I am not sure whether he will always be capable of using that authority with sufficient caution. Comrade Trotsky*, on the other hand, as his struggles against the C.C. on the question of the People’s Commissariat for Communications has already proved, is distinguished not only by outstanding ability. He is personally perhaps the most capable man in the present C.C., but he has displayed excessive self-assurance and shown excessive preoccupation with the purely administrative side of the work.

These two qualities of the two outstanding leaders of the present C.C. can inadvertently lead to a split, and if our Party does not take steps to avert this, the split may come unexpectedly.

I shall not give any further appraisals of the personal qualities of other members of the C.C. I shall just recall that the October episode with Zinoviev and Kamenev was, of course, no accident, but neither can the blame for it be laid upon them personally, any more than non-Bolshevism can upon Trotsky.

Speaking of the young C.C. members, I wish to say a few words about Bukharin and Pyatakov. They are, in my opinion, the most outstanding figures (among the younger ones), and the following must be borne in mind about them: Bukharin is not only a most valuable and major theorist of the Party; he is also rightly considered the favourite of the whole Party, but his theoretical views can be classified as fully Marxist only with the great reserve, for there is something scholastic about him (he has never made a study of dialectics, and, I think, never fully appreciated it).

December 25. As for Pyatakov, he is unquestionably a man of outstanding will and outstanding ability, but shows far too much zeal for administrating and the administrative side of the work to be relied upon in a serious political matter.

Both of these remarks, of course, are made only for the present, on the assumption that both these outstanding and devoted Party workers fail to find an occasion to enhance their knowledge and amend their one-sidedness.

Lenin, 24 December 1922

*         *           *           *           *

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 the comrades think about a way of removing Staling 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. This circumstance may appear to be a negligible detail. But I think that from the standpoint of safeguards against a split, and from the standpoint of what I wrote above about the relationship between Stalin and Trotsky, it is not a detail, or it is a detail which can assume decisive importance.

Lenin, 25 December 1922


[1] GARY BONO, January 22, 2016, “Lenin’s Last Struggle” recounts a losing campaign against the emerging Stalin, https://www.peoplesworld.org/article/lenin-s-last-struggle-recounts-a-losing-campaign-against-the-emerging-stalin/

[2] Lenin, Works, volume 45, page 497.

[3] Lenin, Works, volume 42, page 418.

[4] Lenin, Works, volume 42, page 600.

[5] Quoted by L.A. Fotieva, Iz vospominanii o Lenine (Moscow 1964), pages 28-9.

[6] Lenin, Works, volume 45, page 601.

[7] Lenin, Works, volume 33, pages 460-1.

[8] Lenin, Works, volume 45, page 606.

[9] Tony Cliff, Trotsky: The Sword of the Revolution 1917-1923, 15. Lenin and Trotsky join forces to fight bureaucracy, https://www.marxists.org/archive/cliff/works/1990/trotsky2/15-ltbloc.html

[10] Lenin, How We Should Reorganise the Workers’’ and Peasants’ Inspection, Recommendation to the Twelfth Party Congress Lenin, Works, volume 33, (p. 481-86)

[11] Lenin, Works, volume 33, page 490.

[12] Trotsky, Stalin School of Falsification, page 72.

[13] Lenin, Works, volume 45, page 608.

[14] Whilst expressing great admiration for the “Junius pamphlet” and its attacks on the Social Democracy reformists Lenin differed only on its failure to continue to defend Poland’s right to self-determination despite the reactionary and semi-feudal character of the nationalist leadership. The principle applies even more so to Ukraine. See Lenin, The Junius Pamphlet, Works, Volume 22, pages 305-319

[15] Gerry Downing, Ireland and Palestine: the rights of oppressed nations to self-determination https://socialistfight.com/2016/01/28/ireland-and-palestine-interpenetrated-peoples-and-the-rights-of-oppressed-nations-to-self-determination/

[16] Lenin, Critical Remarks on the National Question (1913), Works, volume 20, pages 17-51.

[17] J. V. Stalin, Marxism and the National Question, https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/stalin/works/1913/03a.htm

[18] Lenin, On the national and colonial questions (Report to the Second Congress of the Communist International, July 1920) http://www2.stetson.edu/~psteeves/classes/lenincolonial.html

[19] Marcel Liebman: Leninism under Lenin, Translated by Brian Pearse, Merlin Press 1975, Epilogue: The End of Lenin (pp 417-425), https://socialistfight.com/2016/03/04/marcel-liebman-leninism-under-lenin-epilogue-the-end-of-lenin-pp-417-425/

[20] Gus Fagan, Biographical Introduction to Christian Rakovsky, Rakovsky and the Ukraine (1919–23) https://www.marxists.org/archive/rakovsky/biog/biog3.htm

[21] Lenin, The Question of Nationalities or “Autonomisation“, Works, vol. 36, p. 605. https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1922/dec/testamnt/autonomy.htm

[22] Lenin, Works, volume 29, page 194.

[23] Desiatii sezd RKP(b), pages 163-8.

[24] KPSS v rezoliutsiiakh, volume 1, page 562.

[25] Trotsky Papers, volume 2, pages 347-9.

[26] “Smena vekh” (“Change of Landmarks”), a National Bolshevik (Smenovekhovtsy) periodical. inspired by a novel by Nikolay Vasilyevich Ustryalov (November 25, 1890 – September 14, 1937) a pioneer of Russian National Bolshevism, popular with some White Russians. He was increasing inspired by Stalin, seeing the USSR under him as a radish, red on the outside and white inside. He was shot in the great purges in 1937.

[27] Odinnadtsatii sezd RKP(b), pages 72-5.

[28] Vladimir Lenin, On the Intelligentsia, Progress Publishers, 1983, pp. 297-298

[29] MIA: Encyclopedia of Marxism: Glossary of Events, Georgian Affair-1921, https://www.marxists.org/glossary/events/g/e.htm

[30] Lenin, Works, volume 36, pages 605-6.

[31] Lenin, Works, volume 36, pages 610-11.

[32] Lenin, Works, volume 42, pages 602-3.

[33] R. Pipes, The Formation of the Soviet Union: Communism and Nationalism, 1917-1923 (Cambridge 1964), page 271.

[34] Lenin, Works, volume 42, pages 421-3.

[35] P.N. Pospelov and others, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin: Biografiia (Moscow 1963), page 611.

[36] Trotsky, Stalin School of Falsification, pages 66-7.

[37] Lenin, Works, volume 33, page 372

[38] Tony Cliff, Trotsky: The Sword of the Revolution 1917-1923, opus cit.

[39] Lenin, Works, volume 45, pages 607-608.

[40] Leon Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution, translated by Max Eastman, Chicago, Haymarket Books, 2008, p. 209

[41] See Marcel Liebman, Leninism under Lenin, London, J. Cape, 1975, ISBN 978-0-224-01072-6 p.123

[42] See E. H. Carr, The Bolshevik Revolution, London, Macmillan Publishers, 1950, vol. 1, p. 75.

[43] Ibid., V01. 45, p. 607.

[44] See p. 423.

[45] Ibid., V01. 45, pp. 607-8.

[46] Lewin, p. 98

[47] Deutscher, Prophet Unarmed, p. 90.

[48] Marcel Liebman: Leninism under Lenin, https://socialistfight.com/2016/03/04/marcel-liebman-leninism-under-lenin-epilogue-the-end-of-lenin-pp-417-425/






2 thoughts on “Lenin Begins his Last Struggle Against Stalin

  1. Thank you for an interesting overview.

    I didn’t read the piece through the end, but only the first chapter about the foreign trade monopoly.

    You mention Lenin’s “isolation”, “declining authority” in Politburo and in the party leadership, in 1922-1923, perhaps on the grounds of his physical condition. I can assure you that Lenin remained well connected and enjoyed the supreme power till his last days. Just a small detail: Sapronov, a very influential party leader and the People’s deputy in the Moscow region (Moskovsky oblastnoi) Soviet, was in charge of the Gorki resort, while the Stalin’s spies were “in disguise, undercover”.

    And the second point is from the field of guessing, what if.

    What if in the second half of 1920 Soviet Russia and large part (let’s suppose centre and south) of Germany joined together? Would the foreign trade monopoly be feasible in the union between two big countries? Wasn’t the principle of foreign trade monopoly just a function of the USSR isolation due to “sanitary cordon”, that is, a necessary but temporary manoeuvre?

    All the best,


  2. You have got possibly the best online sites. http://slankepillerno.ovh/


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