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Lenin’s Rise to Socialist Power

An excerpt from 'Heaven on Earth'
By Joshua Muravchik | April 24, 2019

The chief resource of the “revolutionary dictatorship” was Lenin’s iron will. “The greatest inward mobilization of all his forces…made him the greatest revolutionary of history,” said Trotsky. He was abstemious, sitting at his desk on a plain wooden chair, dining with his wife and sisters on soup and black bread which Krupskaya carried from the Kremlin restaurant. “He worked from morn till night, and out of great anxiety he could not sleep,” recalled Krupskaya. “He would awake in the middle of the night, get out of bed, and begin to check by telephone: had this or the other of his orders been carried out? think up some kind of additional telegram to send.”

The old machinery of government had been smashed. Existing law in Russia was abolished. Lenin built a new apparatus from the ground up, or rather, from himself down. All authority owed from him—or from the committees that he dominated, which amounted to the same thing. He fined cabinet members for coming late to meetings. His orders, even on small administrative matters, were sent in a blizzard of telegrams all over the vast expanse of Russia. Yet the British philosopher Bertrand Russell found him “entirely without a trace of hauteur. If one met him without knowing who he was, one would not guess that he is possessed of great power or even that he is in any way very eminent.” Angelica Balabanoff, who served as secretary to the Comintern in its early days, wrote that even though Lenin was “intoleran[t] of any deviation from his way of thinking,” he “avoided everything that might…lead toward the establishment of a personality cult.” Anatole Lunacharsky, the commissar of education, explained the apparent contradiction: “He does his work imperiously, not because power is sweet to him but because he is sure that he is right and cannot endure to have anybody spoil his work.”

Alas, he had so little to work with. His regard for his followers was always laced with contempt. His so-called “testament,” a deathbed missive to the Central Committee, read like a painstaking catalogue of each of their faults. During the years of exile he had repeatedly had to fortify them against the temptation of compromise with other factions, and then during October he had had to goad them on to the seizure of power. No sooner was it theirs, than many were wavering once again. Fearing that their party could not succeed on its own, several Bolshevik leaders endorsed the proposal of the Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries for a governing coalition of all socialist parties.

Lenin would not hear of it. To him, the others were “petty bourgeois” and had to be treated as a part of the “class enemy.” He called for “ruthless war on the kulaks! Death to them!” and “Hatred and contempt for the parties which defend them—the Right Socialist-Revolutionaries, the Mensheviks, and today’s Left Socialist-Revolutionaries!”

The chief resource of the 'revolutionary dictatorship' was Lenin’s iron will.

He received decisive backing from Trotsky, who himself had once been aligned with the Mensheviks. For that reason, and because he ended as a martyr to Stalin, Trotsky has often been imagined as embodying a more humane or democratic strain of communism. But from 1917 on, he was joined at the hip to Lenin in implacable, merciless antipathy to all non-Bolsheviks.

Some of Lenin’s other comrades felt so strongly about the need to compromise that a group of commissars resigned in protest after the first weeks. They warned that if they kept all power in their own hands, the Bolsheviks would have to rule “by the means of political terror.” This warning did not faze Lenin. “Do you think we can be victors without the most severe revolutionary terror?” he admonished a cabinet member who objected to a decree prescribing summary executions. Trotsky recalled that this “was the period when Lenin, at every passing opportunity, emphasized the absolute necessity of the terror.”

True, a civil war was raging. Therefore, in provinces experiencing rebellion against the Bolsheviks he ordered “merciless mass terror against kulaks, priests, and White Guards; persons of doubtful standing should be locked up in concentration camps.” But he also demanded similar measures as a preventative in locales where revolt had not broken out:

In Nizhni Novgorod there are clearly preparations for a White Guard uprising. We must gather our strength, set up a dictatorial troika and institute mass terror “immediately”; shoot and ferret out hundreds of prostitutes who get the soldiers drunk, former officers, etc. . . . It is necessary to act all-out. . . . Mass seizures of Mensheviks and other unreliables.

Lamenting his followers’ lack of resolve, he pleaded, “Is it impossible to find among us a Fouquier-Tinville [chief prosecutor of the Jacobin Terror] to tame our wild counter-revolutionists?” As biographer David Shub puts it, Lenin found his in Feliks Dzerzhinsky. The scion of Polish aristocrats, Dzerzhinsky had been one of the non-Jewish minority in Rosa Luxemburg’s antinationalist Polish socialist party before ending up a Bolshevik. Lenin appointed him the first chief of the Cheka, or Bolshevik secret police.

Russia had had a secret police force under the tsars, the dreaded Okhrana. But its work—which consisted mostly of internal espionage—was child’s play compared with that of the Cheka. If Fouquier-Tinville was once Europe’s exemplar of terror, his exploits paled alongside Dzerzhinsky’s. Whereas the former sent his victims to the guillotine after a parody of judicial procedure in which perhaps one-fourth were acquitted, Dzerzhinsky’s were mostly shot without any formalities. And while Fouquier-Tinville’s toll numbered at most a couple of thousand souls, Dzerzhinsky dispatched tens of thousands. The Okhrana had rarely killed anyone.

Some of Lenin’s other comrades felt so strongly about the need to compromise that a group of commissars resigned in protest after the first weeks. They warned that if they kept all power in their own hands, the Bolsheviks would have to rule ‘by the means of political terror.’ This warning did not faze Lenin.

The writer Maxim Gorky, a friend of Lenin’s and a public relations asset to the regime, used his unusual access to appeal for the commutation of the sentences of various intellectuals. “Don’t you think you are wasting your energies on a lot of rubbish?” the ruler asked, even while sometimes acquiescing. Gorky owed his sway to his ability to understand Lenin or at least to picture him as he wished to be understood. “In this accursed world,” Gorky wrote, Lenin shone forth as “a splendid human being, who had to sacrifice himself to hostility and hatred, so that love might be at last realized.”

Terrorizing resistors, kulaks and other recalcitrants was only part of the process of consolidating Bolshevik power. After the fall of the tsar in February 1917, Russia had become, Lenin said, the freest country in the world. Now it was time to reverse that process. Within two weeks after its formation, the Bolshevik government issued a decree restricting the press and began shutting down newspapers. Liberal papers were special targets because they were “bourgeois,” but papers reflecting non-Bolshevik shades of socialist opinion were also closed because they “objectively” served capitalist interests. At first these measures were described as temporary, but in short order a decree was issued in the name of the Central Executive Committee, declaring: “re-establishment of the so-called freedom of the press…would be an unpardonable surrender to the will of capital, that is to say, a counter-revolutionary measure.”

A similar fate awaited the political parties. The Constitutional Democrats, pillars of the provisional government, felt the harshest repression the earliest. Soon the Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries and other socialist splinters were harassed and in effect outlawed. But Lenin was not satisfied. He wrote to his justice minister: “In my opinion it is necessary to extend the application of execution by shooting to all phases covering activities of Mensheviks, Socialist Revolutionaries and the like; a formula must be found that would place these activities in connexion with the international bourgeoisie and its struggle against us.”

Only the Left Socialist Revolutionaries for a time escaped persecution because they had supported the Bolshevik takeover. In contrast to the Bolsheviks, who always had a steely glint beneath their revolutionary rhetoric, the Left SRs (my grandparents’ party), led by a young woman, Maria Spiridonova, were genuine wild-eyed radicals. When they broke with the Bolsheviks over the humiliating peace with Germany, they took up arms and managed to take Dzerzhinsky hostage. They were in a position to seize the Kremlin, says Pipes, but “they emphatically did not want the responsibility of governing. Their rebellion was not so much a coup d’état as a coup de théâtre.” Soon, the Bolsheviks brought up military reinforcements and regained the upper hand.

The suppression of opposition parties did not suffice to safeguard socialism. Lenin recognized that if his own party remained an open forum, enemies would find a voice inside.

A month later, a disciple of Spiridonova’s, the veteran terrorist Fanya Kaplan, managed to pump two bullets into Lenin as he emerged from a meeting.

He was a “traitor [to] socialism,” she said before being shot. The Left SRs had aided the Bolshevik coup because the policies of the provisional government, in which moderate socialists were prominent, so little resembled the socialist dream. But once in power, Lenin had not fulfilled their dream, either.

The suppression of opposition parties did not suffice to safeguard socialism. Lenin recognized that if his own party remained an open forum, enemies would find a voice inside. What brought this danger home to him was the emergence in 1920-21 of a group of Bolsheviks calling themselves the “Workers’ Opposition.” Led by Alexander Schliapnikov, the highest-ranking Bolshevik of proletarian background, and based mainly in the trade unions, they advocated that control of the factories be entrusted to the workers themselves instead of the party.

Lenin quite rightly saw this proposal as a threat to the party’s monopoly of power. To allow workers to control the workplaces would undermine the “dictatorship of the proletariat.” The logic was odd, but it was the logic of the system. Therefore Lenin had a resolution on “party unity” put through, banning any activity that smacked of factionalism. It was to enforce this ban on factions, says Pipes, that the post of general secretary was created. The man Lenin chose for this job was Joseph Stalin.

In addition to muzzling “counterrevolutionaries,” it was essential to indoctrinate the public in Bolshevik ideas and begin to mold a new socialist man. Louis Fischer describes how the effort was launched under Lenin’s characteristic whip:

Lenin was anxious to have monarchist monuments removed and appropriate inscriptions (like “Religion is the opiate of the people”) displayed on walls and buildings in Moscow and Petrograd. “I am astonished and outraged,” he wrote Lunacharsky [the commissar of education], that this had not yet been done. . . . In September, 1918, Lenin reprimanded Lunacharsky . . . for failing to display busts of Marx and propaganda texts in city streets: “I demand that the names of those responsible be sent to me so that they can be put on trial.”

The immense challenge of consolidating the “dictatorship of the proletariat” in Russia would have constituted the life’s work of a less driven leader, but Lenin never expected that this alone would complete his mission. He believed devoutly in the dictum of Marx and Engels that the working man has no country, and he had proved his fidelity to this principle with his counter-patriotic stand during the war. Moreover, the justice cation that Russian Marxists developed for pursuing a socialist revolution in Russia despite its backwardness was that it would trigger revolution in the more advanced countries. They, in turn, would help Russia to build socialism. Although this was a non sequitur—no one ever explained what the workers of Germany or France could do to develop Russia—still it was an article of faith among Bolsheviks and many other Marxists. Lenin knew, therefore, that the success of his revolution depended not only on maintaining the Bolsheviks’ grip on Russia, but also on spreading the revolution abroad.

Lenin quite rightly saw this proposal as a threat to the party’s monopoly of power. To allow workers to control the workplaces would undermine the 'dictatorship of the proletariat.' The logic was odd, but it was the logic of the system.

He began in the non-Russian parts of the tsarist empire. Within weeks of the Bolsheviks’ seizure of power, Lenin and Stalin (who was in charge of nationalities) had issued a declaration recognizing “the equality and sovereignty of all the peoples of Russia” and “the right of . . . self-determination including secession.” This fulfilled a tenet of the program by which the Bolsheviks had appealed for support among the empire’s restive non-Russians. Lettish riflemen, for example, were among the most loyal and effective military units at Lenin’s deploy. In the chaotic aftermath of the October Revolution, one by one the various national groups, acting from their own aspirations or prodded by Russia’s neighbors looking to extend their own influence, declared their independence.

Quickly, Lenin reversed course. Many of the new republics were more backward than Russia; they could not help her build socialism. Still, what sense did it make to allow the capitalists to regain power in the near abroad? Through coups by local Communists or direct invasion by the Red Army, the Ukraine and the central Asian and trans-Caucasian parts of the empire were reunited with Russia to form the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. The last major piece to be restored—until the Stalin-Hitler Pact a generation later—was Georgia, where Menshevism held sway. The Menshevik government had begun to create a noncoercive social democracy, which made it, in the words of Adam Ulam, “the toast of the Western socialists, whose delegations visited Georgia and rendered glowing accounts of its democratic virtues.” This gave Lenin pause about the tactics to be used in subduing it. His scruples were overcome by Stalin, himself a Georgian, and after an invasion by a hundred thousand Red Army troops, the Menshevik government ed and Georgia joined the “free union of free nations.”

As the Bolsheviks saw it, the most important battleground of the world socialist revolution was destined to be Germany, the industrial heartland of Europe. Encouragingly, events there seemed to reprise those in Russia. In late 1918, military defeat forced the kaiser to abdicate, just as it had the tsar. He was replaced by a provisional government of moderate socialists pledged to convene a Constituent Assembly. Meanwhile, inspired by the example of the soviets, councils of workers and soldiers sprang up in German cities. More radical elements denounced the provisional government as handmaidens of capitalism. The most vociferous of these were the so-called Spartacists, led by Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, son of SPD founder Wilhelm Liebknecht, a descendant of Martin Luther’s.

The Spartacists were the Left of the Left: a faction among the Independent Social Democrats that had split from the SPD over the war issue. At the beginning of January 1919, working with Karl Radek, leader of a high-level delegation of Bolshevik emissaries sent by Lenin, the Spartacists broke away and formed the Communist Party of Germany. Within a week, their followers were in the streets of Berlin trying to imitate the Bolshevik coup. But their effort was ill- planned. (Luxemburg, whose mantra was “the spontaneity of the masses,” was opposed on principle to planning.) Worse, their adversaries had learned well from Russian events, especially the fatal split between the moderate left provisional government of Kerensky and the military establishment led by General Kornilov. Mindful of that example, the moderate socialists and the military stuck fast to one another and the rising was promptly quelled, as were several in other German cities in the next months. Liebknecht and Luxemburg were arrested by paramilitaries, then taken out separately and shot. Her body was dumped in a canal, where it was found months later.

The immense challenge of consolidating the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ in Russia would have constituted the life’s work of a less driven leader, but Lenin never expected that this alone would complete his mission.

Even as the last Communist uprisings were being put down in Germany, Bolshevik military veteran Béla Kun managed to gain power in Hungary by co- opting the more popular Social Democrats. Lenin counseled: “Be firm. If there are waverings among the Socialists who came over to you yesterday, or among the petty bourgeois, in regard to the dictatorship of the proletariat, suppress the waverings mercilessly. Shooting is the proper fate of a coward in war.” Lenin’s willingness to practice mercilessness far beyond a level contemplated by his adversaries was one of the keys to his triumph in Russia, but in Hungary it back red. Domestic resistance undermined the newly christened Red Army of Hungary as it tried to fend off Romanian and Czech forces, and Soviet Hungary collapsed after four months.

Lenin’s boldest stroke in spreading the revolution abroad came in Poland in 1920. Newly liberated after a century of Russian rule, Poland was led by Josef Pilsudski, who as a student had been prosecuted as a co-conspirator of Sasha Ulyanov’s. As he watched the Bolsheviks reconquer the various parts of the tsarist empire, Pilsudski concluded that Poland, too, was on Lenin’s menu. He decided to strike first while Russia was still weak, hoping to win generous boundaries for Poland and to reestablish an independent Ukraine as a long-term counterpoise to Russia.

After some Polish victories, the Red Army gained the initiative and drove the Poles all the way back across the River Bug. This was roughly the boundary that had been proposed by British diplomats at the Versailles conference (the so-called Curzon Line), although it was well to the west of what the Poles had hoped. Western diplomats now called on the Russians to halt their advance, since Poland was not a historic part of the Russian Empire proper and Lenin himself acknowledged that the Curzon Line “was very advantageous for us.” Instead, the Red Army pushed on toward Warsaw. In a secret speech, revealed only in the 1990s after the disappearance of the Soviet Union, Lenin explained his reasoning to a party conference: “From the projected borders [of a conquered Poland] we would have won a solid, comfortable, rm base for operations against central Europe.” Indeed, he said elsewhere in the speech, it would have provided “a base against all the contemporary states.” But as Russian forces encircled Warsaw to the north, Pilsudski, with a smaller force, swung to the south and struck a devastating blow to the exposed Russian flank, neutralizing hundreds of thousands of Red Army troops and forcing Lenin to agree to the terms proposed by the Western powers.

As the Bolsheviks saw it, the most important battleground of the world socialist revolution was destined to be Germany, the industrial heartland of Europe.

As a result of this debacle, Lenin told his party, “we must limit ourselves to a defensive posture with regard to the Entente, but despite the complete failure in the first instance, our first defeat, we will keep shifting from a defensive to an offensive policy over and over again until we finish all of them off for good.” In other words, the goals were boundless and implacable but the tactics would have to be flexible and patient.

To prepare for a long-term struggle, Lenin created the Third International or Comintern. Superficially it resembled the Second International, in that it consisted of individual parties from numerous states, but it functioned more like a worldwide extension of the Bolshevik party. By its statutes, the decisions of the executive, which were unfailingly determined by the Russians, were “binding on all affiliated parties.” In turn, each party was required to work by means of top-down “iron discipline,” with “ final authority and . . . broad powers” concentrated in its Central Committee. Each was required, moreover, to create a secret underground apparatus, even in countries where Communist parties were entirely legal. In short, just as Lenin had once commanded Bolshevik activities in Russia from the perch of exile, so now from Moscow he could command revolutionary activities in every corner of the globe.

It was not given to Lenin, however, to enjoy this control room. In May 1922, less than two years after the adoption of the statutes of the Comintern, he suffered a stroke. After some months, he was able to return to work, but in December a second stroke followed. In March 1923 came the third, which left him largely incapacitated until his death ten months later.

Lenin had forged the instruments of the greatest system of absolutism history had ever known.

He had forged the instruments of the greatest system of absolutism history had ever known. And he had placed them within the reach of a favorite disciple, Stalin, although it is safe to assume that he never envisioned anyone but himself wielding them. Too late, he seems to have sensed what Stalin was up to, and to have glimpsed the Georgian’s sinister side. He struggled to thwart him, but no longer had the strength to attend the necessary meetings, and Stalin had secured the authorization of the Politburo to isolate Lenin for the sake of his health. The failing leader was reduced to fighting by means of notes he dictated, and these had little sting. He complained that Stalin was “rude,” but what was the force of this criticism among people whose métier was terror?

Lenin proposed that the Central Committee be expanded to include large numbers of rank-and-file workers, whose presence he felt would somehow purify it of the factional intrigues percolating in his absence. But it was late in the game for the Bolsheviks to add workers to positions of power. There had been few if any present when the party was founded, and few in authority at any time. The last worker to rise high had been Schliapnikov, the disgraced leader of the Workers’ Opposition. The whole meaning of Bolshevism, beginning with Lenin’s seminal What Is to Be Done?, was that socialism should be created for the workers, not by them. Now that the old man was unable to wield power himself, his proposal that his deputies yield it to a bunch of workers rather than take it in their own hands must have made them laugh.

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Joshua Muravchik, a Distinguished Fellow at the World Affairs Institute, is the author of hundreds of articles appearing in all major U.S. newspapers and intellectual magazines, as well as ten previous books including Heaven on Earth: The Rise and Fall of Socialism; Exporting Democracy: Fulfilling America’s Destiny; Trailblazers of the Arab Spring: Voices of Democracy in the Middle East; and Liberal Oasis: The Truth About Israel.


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