International Socialist Alternative is commemorating 100 years since the death of Vladimir Lenin, Russian revolutionary, Bolshevik, internationalist and leader of the October 1917 Revolution. However a century after his death, the ruling classes globally still try link him to the most horrific dictators. This reprint of an article from 2004, published by ISA’s Swedish section Socialistiskt Alternativ, debunks these myths and tells the real story.
By Per-Åke Westerlund
Vladimir Lenin, the main leader of the Russian revolution, made the following insightful observation in mid-1917:
“During the lifetime of great revolutionaries, the oppressing classes constantly hounded them, received their theories with the most savage malice, the most furious hatred, and the most unscrupulous campaigns of lies and slander. After their death, attempts are made to convert them into harmless icons, to canonise them, so to say, and to hallow their names to a certain extent for the ‘consolation’ of the oppressed classes and with the object of duping the latter, while at the same time robbing the revolutionary theory of its substance, blunting its revolutionary edge and vulgarising it”. (State and Revolution)
Lenin died 80 years ago, on 21 January 1924, but had by then been seriously ill and away from political work since the end of 1922. Since his death, however, the ruling classes globally have made no attempt at canonisation. Their fear of the Russian revolution, ‘ten days that shook the world’, led them to continue with ‘the most savage malice, the most furious hatred and the most unscrupulous campaigns of lies and slander’. Never before or after have the capitalists been closer to losing their profits and their power worldwide than in the period 1917-20.
Anti-Lenin campaigns are used to scare workers and youth away from revolutionary ideas and struggle. For socialists today, it is therefore necessary to answer the lies and slanders directed against Lenin and the Russian revolution.
The image of an unbroken line from Lenin to Joseph Stalin, and on to Leonid Brezhnev and Mikhail Gorbachev, is maybe the biggest falsification in history. Publications like The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression – by Stephane Courtois, Nicolas Werth, Jean-Louis Panne, Andrzej Paczkowski, Karel Bartosek, Jean-Louis Margolin (Harvard University Press, 1999) – say nothing about the policies of the Bolsheviks led by Lenin or the decisions made immediately after the October revolution in 1917. They hide the enormous struggles of the 1920s, started by Lenin himself, to stop the rise of Stalinism. They cannot explain the one-sided civil war Stalin conducted in the 1930s against anyone connected to Lenin.
One distinguished historian who did differentiate between Lenin and Stalin was E.H. Carr, who described how Lenin’s regime encouraged the working class to take an active part in the business of the party and the nation. That position on democracy and workers rights’ was completely opposite to the dictatorship established by Stalin.
It was the workers’ councils, the soviets, which took power in October 1917, and it was their elected and recallable delegates who appointed the government. Workers’ rights, including the right to strike, were enshrined. The setting up of factory committees and collective bargaining were encouraged. The Bolsheviks were not in favor of banning any party, not even the bourgeois parties, as long as they did not take up armed struggle. In the beginning, the only organization banned was the Black Hundreds, which was made up of mobs organized as a proto-fascist party specializing in physical attacks on radicals and pogroms against Jewish people.
The Bolshevik government proved to be the most progressive in history in its first decisions. These included new laws on women’s rights, the right to divorce and to abortion. Antisemitism and racism were forbidden by law. Oppressed nations were given the right to decide their fate. It was the first state which attempted to create a new socialist order, despite terrible material conditions.
Lenin’s Soviet Union and his political program were smashed by Stalinism. The coming to power of the Stalinist bureaucracy meant a counter-revolution in every field, apart from the nationalised economy. Rights for workers, women and oppressed nations were all put under the iron heel. Instead of ‘dying away’, which was Lenin’s perspective for the apparatus of the workers’ state, it grew into an oppressive military-police machine of gigantic proportions. Stalinism was a nationalistic dictatorship, a parasitic organism living on the body of the planned economy.
This was not an inevitable result of the workers’ revolution, but was caused by concrete circumstances, the isolation of the revolution – particularly the defeat of the German revolution of 1918-23 – and the economic backwardness of Russia. Stalinism, however, could not take power without resistance, without a bloody political counter-revolution. Stalin’s purges and witch-hunts in 1936-38 were not blind actions, but the response of the bureaucracy towards growing opposition to its rule.
The main accused in the show-trials was Lenin’s ally from 1917, Leon Trotsky, and his followers, who were imprisoned and executed by the thousands. Trotsky – who defended and developed the program of Lenin and the Bolsheviks – was expelled from the Soviet Union in 1929 and murdered by Stalin’s hired assassin in Mexico in 1940. Trotsky became the main enemy of Stalin’s regime because he had actually led the revolution in 1917 alongside Lenin (while Stalin had been hesitant and remained on the sidelines), he analysed and exposed the terror regime of Stalin in detail, and he had a program for overthrowing Stalinism and for the restoration of workers’ democracy.
Bourgeois politicians and social democrats in the West also attacked Trotsky as a revolutionary Marxist leader. They understood that his ideas were not just a threat to Stalin but to the capitalists’ power as well. During the Moscow Trials in 1936, the Norwegian government did not allow Trotsky, who was then in Norway, to publicly defend himself. When Stalin in 1943 closed down the Communist International (which was set up in 1918 to link revolutionary groups across the world), in order to achieve an alliance with the US and Britain, the New York Times commented that Stalin finally had renounced “Trotsky’s idea of world revolution”.
Stalin’s former spy chief, Leopold Trepper, later wrote: “But who did protest at that time? Who rose up to voice his outrage? The Trotskyites can lay claim to this honor. Following the example of their leader, who was rewarded for his obstinacy with the end of an ice axe, they fought Stalinism to the death and they were the only ones that did… Today, the Trotskyites have a right to accuse those who once howled along with the wolves”. (The Great Game, 1977) We can compare his comment with Winston Churchill’s, who in the 1950s named Stalin as a “great Russian statesman”.
Before the political counter-revolution of Stalinism, the leadership under Lenin and Trotsky did not act from their own interests as first priority. Principles guided their actions, above all to take the workers’ struggle forward on a world scale. They admitted when they were forced to retreat or compromise.
Stalinism, on the other hand, used the conditions from the years of civil war and mass starvation to build an entirely new political system. Stalinist society was described as a perfect ideal, a dream world. Dictatorship was introduced, not only in the Soviet Union, but in all the ‘communist’ parties internationally. This continued even when the economies of the Stalinist countries were at their peak in the 1950s and 1960s. The living debates and traditions of the Bolshevik party had been terminated in the 1920s and 1930s.
Stalinism in words kept a connection to the revolution, Marx and Lenin, and turned them into religious icons because this helped strengthen these regimes. The bureaucracy wanted to take the credit for the revolution, which in itself is proof of its attractive power. The end result, however, was to discredit the very concepts of Marxism and ‘Leninism’ in the minds of workers and oppressed people globally. ‘Leninism’ became the slogan of a parasitic dictatorship.
This Stalinist falsification of Lenin’s ideas and of Marxism was accepted without question by the social democrats and the ruling classes internationally. They all had an interest in hiding Lenin’s real ideas. Trotsky and his supporters defended the political heritage of Lenin, and were opposed to the cult of personality which Stalin constructed. In contrast to superficial criticism from politicians in the West, Trotsky had a scientific and class-based program against Stalinism. Trotsky, for example, warned against Stalin’s military-led, forced collectivisation of agriculture in 1929-33 (while some anti-Lenin propagandists claim that it was Lenin who forced through collectivization).
In the book The Revolution Betrayed, written in 1936, Trotsky explained in detail how Stalin’s policies were the opposite to Lenin’s: on culture, the family, agriculture, industry, democratic and national rights, etc. On all international issues, Stalinism broke with the program and methods of Lenin, above all the need for the independence of the working class – in the Chinese revolution of 1925-27, the struggle against fascism in Germany, the Spanish revolution in the 1930s, and in all other decisive struggles. Today’s anti-Lenin commentators, by stressing that revolutionary struggle is ‘unrealistic’, thereby end up in Stalin’s camp against Lenin and Trotsky.
1917: What was achieved?
The revolution in February 1917 overthrew the tsar’s dictatorial regime. The provisional government which replaced the tsar, however, continued the policies which had led to revolution in the first place. The horrors of the First World War continued, the land question remained unsolved, national oppression was actually stepped up, hunger in the cities worsened, there were no elections and huge repression was directed against workers and poor peasants. These developments, hardly mentioned by bourgeois historians, laid the basis for the Bolsheviks’ mass support and for the October revolution.
While Rumsfeld and Co. rely on mere slogans, books like The Black Book of Communism are an attempt to give a factual and historical justification to Rumsfeld’s slander. Nicolas Werth, who wrote the chapter on the Bolsheviks, attempts to virtually avoid the politics of the autumn of 1917. He briefly skirts over the decrees on peace and land agreed at the Second Soviet Congress, the meeting which elected the new government led by Lenin.
It was this meeting which adopted the policies demanded by the poor since February, and which they themselves had already started to implement – a drastic redistribution of land. It was the Bolsheviks who actually implemented the slogan of the Social Revolutionary Party, ‘land to the toiler’ – land to the 100 million peasants and landless. (The Social Revolutionaries had wide support among the peasantry, but split along class lines in 1917. Its left wing joined the Soviet government – before attempting to overthrow it in 1918.) Thirty thousand rich landowners, hated by all layers of the peasantry, lost their land without compensation.
The decree of the Bolshevik government on peace was a decision of world historic proportions, longed for by millions of soldiers and their families for more than three years. This effect of the Russian revolution and the subsequent German revolution a year later, in ending the First World War (in November 1918), is completely buried by the slander campaigns against Lenin and the revolution.
Werth, in The Black Book, writes that the Bolsheviks “seemed” to appeal to non-Russian peoples to liberate themselves. In fact, the government declared all people equal and sovereign, advocated the right to self-determination for all peoples, including the right to form their own states, and the abolition of all national and religious privileges.
The decisions to abolish the death penalty in the army and to ban racism, which show the real intentions of the workers’ regime, are nowhere mentioned in The Black Book. The same goes for Soviet Russia being the first country to legalise the right to abortion and divorce. Entirely new, too, was the right for workers’ organisations and ordinary people to use printing presses, making freedom of the press more than empty words. The fact that criticism could be raised on the streets is verified by many eyewitness reports. The reformist Mensheviks and the anarchists operated in total freedom and could, for example, organise mass demonstrations at the funerals of Georgi Plekhanov and Prince Pyotr Kropotkin (in 1918 and 1921) respectively.
At the Third Soviet Congress, the first after October 1917, the Bolshevik majority increased further. The new executive committee elected at this congress included 160 Bolsheviks and 125 Left Social Revolutionaries. But there were also representatives of six other parties, among them two Menshevik leaders. Soviet democracy was spreading to every region and village, where workers and poor peasants established new organs of power, local soviets, which overthrew the old rulers.
Soviet rule meant that some smaller privileged groups in society did not have the right to vote: those who hired others for profit or lived off the work of others, monks and priests, plus criminals. This can be compared with most European countries where, at that time, the majority of workers and all women lacked trade union rights and the right to vote.
Lenin explained the historic importance of the revolution:
“The Soviet government is the first in the world (or strictly speaking, the second, because the Paris Commune  began to do the same thing) to enlist the people, specifically the exploited people, in the work of administration. The working people are barred from participation in bourgeois parliaments (they never decide important questions under bourgeois democracy, which are decided by the stock exchange and the banks) by thousands of obstacles, and the workers know and feel, see and realise perfectly well that the bourgeois parliaments are institutions alien to them, instruments for the oppression of the workers by the bourgeoisie, institutions of a hostile class, of the exploiting minority”.
At the same time, Lenin always had an internationalist perspective. He even warned against using the Russian experience as a model to be followed everywhere:
“Proletarian democracy, of which Soviet government is one of the forms, has brought a development and expansion of democracy unprecedented in the world, for the vast majority of the population, for the exploited and working people. It should be observed that the question of depriving the exploiters of the franchise is a purely Russian question, and not a question of the dictatorship of the proletariat in general”. (The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky, 1918)
Lenin noted that a victory for the working class “in at least one of the advanced countries” would change the role of the Russian revolution: “Russia will cease to be the model and will once again become a backward country (in the ‘Soviet’ and the socialist sense)”. (Left-wing Communism, an Infantile Disorder, 1920)
In Petrograd, the workers’ representatives took power in October almost without any bloodshed. If anything, the Bolsheviks were too lenient with their enemies. In Moscow, generals who attempted to stop the workers with arms were not imprisoned if they promised not to do it again!
The enemies of the Russian revolution, on the other hand, acted according to the motto that against the Bolsheviks all methods were permissible, noted Victor Serge in his book, Year One of the Russian Revolution (1930). First they hoped that the military would crush the new government directly after October. When that failed, they instigated uprisings and sabotage, while re-arming a counter-revolutionary ‘White’ army.
The oppressed nationalities – the Baltic countries, Finland, Ukraine, etc – had been under direct rule from the provisional government set up in February 1917. Given the possibility of national self-determination after October, the national bourgeoisie distinguished itself, not by the wish for independence, but by inviting imperialist troops to attack the revolutionary government. In Ukraine, the German army expressed its gratitude by banning the very ‘radan’ (parliament) which had invited it. National rights were not guaranteed in Ukraine until Soviet power under the Bolsheviks had prevailed.
The Swedish anti-Lenin author, Staffan Skott, unintentionally proves the liberating effect of the revolution, and how this was later crushed by Stalin:
“Under the tsar, the Ukrainian and Belorussian languages had not been allowed. After the revolution, the independent culture in both countries developed quickly, with literature, theatre, newspapers and art. Stalin, however, did not want ‘independence’ to go too far and become real independence. After the 1930s there was not much left of Ukrainian and Belorussian literature – almost all authors had been shot or sent to prison camps to die”.
After October, “people from the left-wing of the Social Revolutionaries” were the only ones cooperating with the Bolsheviks, Werth writes in The Black Book, to create an impression of Bolshevik isolation. But he has to admit that, at the end of 1917, there was no serious opposition able to challenge the government. The weakness of the counter-revolutionary violence, at that stage, also gives a true picture of the intentions of the Bolsheviks. If Lenin’s aim was to start a civil war – which The Black Book and others claim – why then did the civil war not start until the second half of 1918?
In the first half of 1918, a total of 22 individuals were executed by the ‘Red’ side – less than in Texas under governor George W Bush. Peaceful politics still dominated. There were lively debates in the soviets between Bolsheviks and other political currents.
However, the officer caste and the bourgeoisie in Russia and internationally were determined to act militarily. The civil war in Finland in the spring of 1918, where the White side won at the cost of 30,000 workers and poor peasants killed, was a dress rehearsal for what would happen in Russia. With the aim of invading and defeating the Russian revolution, a new alliance was quickly formed by the two imperialist blocs which had been at war with each other for three years (15 million died in the first world war). British war propaganda against Germany totally ignored the German invasion of Russia in the spring of 1918.
It was Churchill who in 1919 coined the expression ‘the anti-Soviet crusade of 14 nations’. By then the Soviet government was surrounded by the White generals, Pyotr Krasnov and Anton Denikin, in the South, the German army in the West, and Czech forces in the East.
Most of the invasion took place in 1918. British troops arrived in the port of Murmansk, North-West Russia, in June. Two months later, British and French forces took control of Arkhangelsk, with the US joining them later. The US, with 8,000 troops, and Japan with 72,000, invaded Vladivostok in the Far-East in August. German and Turkish forces occupied Georgia, later under British control. Georgia became the base for General Denikin’s army. Among others involved were Romania, a legion of Czech former prisoners of war, Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria and the Baltic countries.
On August 30, 1918, the Bolshevik leader, Moisei Uritsky, was murdered, and Lenin was seriously wounded in an attempt on his life. Two months earlier, the right wing of the Social Revolutionaries had killed another Bolshevik, V Volodarsky, press commissar for the Petrograd Soviet. The increasing blood lust of the opposition parties was again proved in Baku, capital of Azerbaijan. The Bolsheviks lost their majority in the Baku soviet, where Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries welcomed British troops to ‘establish democracy’. Contrary to the mythology, the Bolshevik leaders peacefully resigned – but were then arrested and executed on the order of the British general, W Thompson. The realities of civil war triumphed over the preparedness of the Bolsheviks to offer other parties the possibility to win a majority within the working class.
The ‘red terror’ proclaimed by the Bolsheviks in September 1918 had nothing in common with what today is called terrorism. The ‘red terror’ was public, agreed by the Soviet power, and directed against those who had declared war against the government and the soviets. It was in defense of the revolution and the liberation of the oppressed, against imperialist exploitation of colonies and slaves.
The examples of Finland and Baku had shown to what lengths the ‘White terror’, the counter-revolutionary generals, were prepared to go. Even Werth in The Black Book is obliged to refer to the mood in the White camp. “Down with the Jews and the commissars” was one of the slogans used against Lenin and Grigori Zinoviev, a prominent Bolshevik (eventually framed in one of Stalin’s show trials and executed in 1936). The brutality of the civil war in Ukraine can only be explained by the antisemitism of the counter-revolution.
The White soldiers were fighting under slogans such as “Ukraine to the Ukrainians, without Bolsheviks or Jews” and “death to the Jewish scum”. The Red Army smashed Cossack uprisings which were linked to Admiral Aleksandr Kolchak’s forces. The Black Book claims the Cossacks were especially persecuted, but their intentions were clear and uncompromising: “We Cossacks are against the communists, the communes (collective farming) and the Jews”. Werth estimates that 150,000 people were killed in the antisemitic pogroms conducted by Denikin’s troops in 1919.
In Russia in 1917 and the following years there was no possibility of a ‘third road’ between Soviet power and a reactionary military-police dictatorship. The Mensheviks and the Social Revolutionaries, in particular, put the issue to the test. Already during the first world war, major parts of the Menshevik leadership had capitulated and joined the chauvinist or patriotic camp, supporting tsarist Russia in the imperialist war.
When the soviets dissolved the Constituent Assembly in January 1918, the two parties entered into negotiations with French and British representatives. In cooperation with the bourgeois Cadet party (Constitutional Democrats) they established a new constituent assembly in Samara, South-West Russia, in June 1918, under Czech protection. This assembly dissolved the soviets in the region. Massacres were conducted against Bolsheviks. Even the newspapers of the assembly itself referred to “an epidemic of lynchings”.
The final argument from the anti-Lenin, anti-revolutionary campaign is that ‘communism’ has killed more than 85 million people – the arch anti-communist, R.J. Rummel, says 110 million. But even an examination of the figures given in The Black Book counters the claim that Stalinism and the regime of Lenin were one and the same. Stephane Courtois claims that 20 million of the ‘victims of communism’ were killed in the Soviet Union. For the period 1918-23, however, the number of victims is said to be “hundreds of thousands”. That figure from the civil war can be compared, for example, to the 600,000 killed by the US bombing of Cambodia in the 1970s, or the two million killed as a result of the military coup in Indonesia in the 1960s.
The Black Book places responsibility for all victims of the civil war in Russia, including the 150,000 murdered in the pogroms organized by the White army, on Lenin and the Bolsheviks. According to Serge, 6,000 were executed by the Soviet authorities in the second half of 1918, as civil war raged, less than the number of dead in one single day at the battle of Verdun in the First World War.
From the period up to Lenin’s death, Courtois also counts five million dead as a result of starvation in 1922. The Russian communists and their supporters internationally showed how this catastrophe was a result of the economic embargo and conscious starvation policy of the Western powers from 1919 onwards. Exports to and imports from Russia were in practice zero. Sweden was among those countries blockading Soviet Russia.
Even the ‘body-counting’, anti-Lenin academics end up recording that most of the deaths “caused by communism” listed in The Black Book of Communism took place under Stalin or subsequent Stalinist regimes. That, however, does not change the position of Courtois or other anti-communists. They do not warn against Stalinism, but against “the desire to change the world in the name of an ideal”.
The Red Army prevailed in the civil war because of the mass support for the social revolution, both in Russia and abroad. It was the threat of revolution at home which forced the imperialist powers to withdraw from Russia. Within six months of the launch of the Communist International in 1918, one million members had joined. Half of them lived in countries and regions previously ruled by the Russian tsar.
The new communist parties internationally, however, did not have the experience of the Bolsheviks, who built the party through two decades of struggles – the revolution in 1905, the mass support of the Bolsheviks in 1913-14, etc. The defeats of the revolutions in the rest of Europe – above all in Germany – laid the basis for Stalinism. Now it is time for a new generation of socialists to learn the real lessons of Lenin and the Bolsheviks, in preparation for impending world-shaking events.