To answer this question, one must crucially set out what Lenin’s legacy was, before analysing whether Stalin did or did not betray it. The sources seem to disagree on what this legacy was – Source 5 claims that “For Lenin, the state, the dictatorship […] the terror, were only the means. The aim was socialism”, while Source 4 says that “Lenin [… was] consistent in applying the harshest orthodox Bolshevik line that glorified the high aim and the leader. The party was the instrument, and human beings merely a means of social movement.”
The difference in the nuances of the narratives here is that Volkogonov claims that Lenin merely used human beings as a means of social movement to glorify him, the leader, and an unspecified “high aim”, while Kopolev believed that socialism – a political ideology which is, at its core, for the very human beings that Lenin used as a means to an end – was Lenin’s aim.
Considering this conflicting narrative surrounding Lenin’s rule, it is difficult to objectively evaluate the extent to which Stalin may or may not have betrayed his legacy, however, as needs must, this essay will focus on Lenin’s actions and policies and how far Stalin’s were in keeping with them. In order to compare the rule of these two leaders of Russia, one must look at their policies, their stance on terror, their views on state and state affairs and the economy.
In terms of policy and political style, Stalin and Lenin had some similar, but many different views and moral codes. Lenin’s system of governance was that of democratic centralism where, despite being a guiding influence, Lenin did not exercise absolute power, and even encouraged and facilitated debate over governmental actions.
Admittedly, this was not so that the opposition’s view could be heard – as is the purpose of true democratic debates – but rather in order for Lenin to further establish his points of view as being the true course of revolutionary action – the “right” course.
This tactful manipulation of circumstance would prove to be a common thread through both Lenin’s and Stalin’s rule, making them two of the bloodiest rulers the world has ever seen. However, where Stain and Lenin deviated in terms of policy and governance was when Stalin’s rule became a dictatorship of the sort that Lenin’s rule never was.
It can be argued that out of the totalitarian “embryo” that was Lenin’s rule would inevitably come pure totalitarianism, and therefore that Stalin was merely a natural continuation along the path set out by Lenin’s rule – it is certain that Lenin did play a significant role in creating Stalin – but it is crucial to note, however, that Stalin’s escalation of politics and terror was far beyond the scope of Lenin’s.
However, it can also be argued that while Leninism slowly began to work its way towards political totalitarianism, the economic liberalisation that came with this transition did not necessarily have to result in Stalinist authoritarianism, and therefore that Stalin’s rule was a betrayal of the latter’s legacy. Source 4 suggests that Stalin’s policies were very much in line with Lenin’s, saying that “Lenin and Stalin were very much consistent in applying the harshest orthodox Bolshevik line that glorified that high aim and the leader. The party was the instrument, and human beings merely a means of social movement.”
Source 5 argues, however, that while Lenin’s application of harsh Bolshevik policies was a fact, “Lenin was the direct opposite of Stalin” in that for Lenin, the terror and harsh policies were “only the means. The aim was socialism”, while “for Stalin it was the other way around. For him, […] socialism was the means of achieving [power].” Stalin’s manipulation of Lenin’s ban on factionalism is further evidence for the fact that not only did Stain betray Lenin’s legacy, but he used Lenin’s legacy to further his own betrayal of it.
The ban, implemented in 1921 to bring about an end to splits within the party during a time Lenin believed called for unity, meant that once a party policy had been agreed upon by the Central Committee, everyone was expected to accept it and not form “factions” to challenge the party line – or be expelled from the party.
Stalin, during his rule, used this Ban on Factions to get rid of opposition from Trotsky, Kamanev, and Zinoviev. While this may essentially seem like it was in line with Lenin’s vision, the difference, again, is in the motive Lenin’s introduction of this ban was to get rid of the political infighting that he deemed to be an unnecessary distraction given the crises faced in 1921 (famine, revolt, Kronstadt mutiny), while Stalin’s employment of the ban was to get rid of opposition.
It can be argued, however, that Lenin merely used the argument of getting rid of “unnecessary distraction” as an excuse to get rid of opposition, and therefore was equal in terms of Stalin. However, the fact that he characterised the ban as being for the greater good also belies the fact that he was a more diplomatic statesman than Stalin was, and therefore that the latter did not fulfil his legacy.
Terror and political styles tie very much into each other in both Stalin’s and Lenin’s reigns as the extent of their ideological differences can only be portrayed through the way they enforced their laws, rules, and policies. While it is easy to fall into the trap of assuming that just because Stalin is more well-known as the most ruthless leader of his time Lenin was a mild and merciful leader, it is crucial to remember that Lenin had a strong streak of ruthlessness and cruelty.
An added nuance to this is that, quite interestingly, this “softer” image that has seemed to be perpetuated of Lenin is very much the image he had enjoyed amongst left-wing historians and groups, and therefore was a carefully crafted image that made him, in retrospect, achieve the near cultish following during and after his death in Russia and among communists the world over.
There are many examples of Lenin’s cruelty and reign of terror – amongst which are his extermination of clergy in Shuya after they’d resisted officials raiding the church, made even worse by the fact that despite the Politburo voting to stop further raids on churches, Lenin countermanded this and continued to do so, and his ordering the hanging of a hundred kulaks as a lesson to others. His belief was that revolutionaries had to take hard stances in order to carry out their role, inevitably leading to spilling the blood of their opposition.
He used terror and class warfare to crush opposition and brought about what is known as the Red Terror during War Communism. Lenin’s brutal and unadulterated use of the increasingly powerful and pervasive Cheka to suppress rebellions from citizens in reaction to his harsh policies saw one of the bloodiest times of Russian history – with the death toll being estimated at around 300,000. In total, though the figures are greatly disputed, Lenin’s reign saw the death of millions.
It can be argued that Stalin merely extended the use of terror and class warfare in the early 1930s to push through his Five-Year Plans. Millions of kulaks, termed by the government as “class enemies” to foster antagonistic sentiment against them were killed or sent to labour camps. The terror was not limited only to those powerful individuals and/or groups Stalin saw as a threat, but also workers and engineers accused of sabotage and wrecking who were sent to the growing Gulag. Government organisations too – like Gosplan – were purged of ex-Mensheviks and the bourgeois intelligentsia.
However, the important, yet subtle difference between Lenin and Stalin was that the former made a clear distinction between the methods used against opposition from outside the party and those for dealing with disagreements and opposition from inside the party – there was a clear understanding that terror should not be used on party comrades. In the Great Terror, however, Stalin unleashed terror inside the party, inevitably engulfing an enormous number of people in the wider society.
As source 6 puts it, “Lenin, and later Stalin, were confronted with the fundamental tension between revolutionary goals and need to build up a strong Soviet state.” It seems that Lenin chose more to focus on revolutionary goals – one of which was building Soviet state, while Stalin instead preferred to establish a strong Soviet state – a difference that is consistent with the context of the two leaders – Lenin was a direct catalyst of revolution while Stalin inherited his revolutionary state and therefore was less revolutionarily minded.
Furthermore, the intentions between the two leaders’ reigns of terror could be argued to be different – as source 5 does. Stalin’s reign of power was an establishment of the Soviet state’s – and therefore Stalin’s – power, while the terror under Lenin, as discussed in the first paragraph about ideological differences, was what he believed was necessary to establish socialism and his revolutionary ideas – and not for any power of his own. Does motive truly make a significant impact on whether or not Stalin was betraying Lenin’s legacy?
This warrants an almost resounding yes in reply as it characterises the reasons behind the bloodshed, and proves that because Stalin’s motives were mostly – if not all selfish – he was not fulfilling Lenin’s revolutionary legacy, but rather his own, self-interested one. Therefore, in the aspects of terror and ideology, Stalin seems to have mostly betrayed Lenin’s legacy, even though, on the surface, it may have looked like Stalin was fulfilling it by following in Lenin’s footsteps in terms of the extent of his reign of terror and the motives behind his political style.
While the differences in motives do not, in any way, justify Lenin’s horrific actions throughout his reign, they do certainly separate him from Stalin in terms of legacy.
If there is one factor that can decide the extent of Stalin’s perpetuation of Lenin’s legacy, it is their economic policies. Lenin’s was characterised by his controversially quasi-capitalist New Economic Policy (NEP), while Stalin’s policy consisted of his Five-Year Plans. Following the decline of Russia’s economy following the First World War, Lenin introduced the NEP – an agro-capitalist system –to fast-track the rebuilding of the economy.
This entailed providing incentives to increase production such as the ability to sell surplus, ceasing to squeeze peasants of their grain, and attempts – some successful – at increasing living standards. The Stalinist Five-Year Plans and collectivisation entailed forced collectivisation, bringing all agriculture under government control, and providing an incentive to increase production, not in the form of monetary incentives, but terror and exploitation of workers.
There is much debate over whether the Five-Year Plans were a continuation of Lenin’s NEP, or whether they were an alternative, with many historians arguing for each side. One argument is that the NEP was a transitional phase that would eventually lead to Stalinist economic policies – the proof being that Lenin himself said that the NEP was merely a temporary measure implemented to recover from the civil war and WWI – and therefore that the Five-Year Plans were not a betrayal, but rather a continuation of the NEP. Lenin was not unaware that the NEP went against communist principles, and saw it as “taking one step backwards, to take two steps forward later”.
Seeing as Lenin was trying to achieve in Russia what Marx said could hardly yet even be implemented in highly industrialised and capitalist societies such as America and Britain he understood that it was necessary to go through at least some semblance of a “capitalist” economic phase to fast-track Russia’s way to full socialism. Therefore, the argument goes that Stalin’s five-Year Plans that reverted to an extremely harsh socialist system were all part of the plan – indeed, the NEP was never renounced, and the first two Five-Year Plans were always considered by Soviet historians to be part of the NEP.
However, there are many counter-arguments to this – the first being that while agreeing that the NEP was not an ideal socialist system, Lenin’s vision was that it should last at least several decades until universal literacy was accomplished; and yet, in 1928, after only seven years of the NEP, Stalin introduced full central planning, re-nationalised much of the economy, and from the late 1920s onwards introduced a policy of rapid industrialisation. Stalin’s collectivisation of agriculture was his most notable departure from the NEP approach which encouraged individual production.
In late 1929, the eighth year of the NEP, Stalin responded to an ongoing, two-year-long crisis of underproduction in agriculture by destroying the smychka (trade unions) essentially annihilating more or less independent trade unions and gutting factory committees, paving the way for the unbridled exploitation of the proletariat.
Stalin himself, despite going to great lengths to portray himself as an ardent disciple of Lenin while the latter was alive, remained non-committed to the NEP, and even as early as 1918 was quoted as calling it “the beginning of the planned reconstruction of the outmoded social-economic system in a new socialist manner”. Although a policy somewhat similar to Stalin’s – albeit far less brutal and extreme – would probably have been Lenin’s vision somewhere down the line, post-NEP, it is possible to argue with considerably strong evidence that in the case of economic policies, Stalin, with his Five-Year Plans did betray Lenin’s legacy.
Stalin did, however, take pains to present the Five-Year Plans as policies in keeping with, and even honouring Lenin’s – Source 1 says that “Gustav Klucis’ Five-Year Plan poster Under the Banner of Lenin for Socialist Construction (1930) showed the face of Lenin as a mask, with that of Stalin emerging from behind.” The crucial differences were in Stalin’s collectivisation policies, but also in the fact while the NEP provided the incentive for production through increases in living standards and other, monetary benefits, Stalin’s Five-Year-Plans incentivised increases in production through terror, threats and exploitation.
The two leaders’ international relations too are reflective of the extent to which Stalin’s policies were or were not in keeping with Lenin’s. The fundamental difference between the two is that Stalin’s entire political system was based on “socialism in one country” – the idea that it was most important that Russia develop first as a strong Socialist state before it attempted to spread revolutionary ideas worldwide, and any interventions would be purely in order to gain power or subdue rebellions.
This was in sharp contrast to Lenin’s “Global Revolution”, his aim being to instigate socialist revolutions in as many nations as possible. The differences between the two leaders’ stances on international relations is perfectly summed up in the issue of the autonomisation of Georgia and Ukraine. Stalin’s efforts to autonomise these countries were stopped by Lenin, who sided with the Georgians and Ukrainians, because as far as he was concerned, the inclusion of the republics into the Russian Federation, especially against the will of their leaders, put the Russians in the position of imperial masters, undermining the idea of the voluntary union of nations – and making them little better than the tsarist empire they had overthrown.
The differences in their ideologies were based in the fact that Lenin was deeply invested in the idea of departing as far as possible from Tsarism and anything reminiscent of it – apart from terror, of course – because he was directly involved in the October Revolution, while Stalin was an inheritor of the revolution.
Both Lenin and Stalin were focused intensely on the proletarianisation of the state and the creation of a strong state. Lenin’s brutal liquidation of the peasantry that resulted in a great famine paved a dark and bloody path to Stalin’s eventually doing the same – with the same result of a famine. Stalin also inherited Lenin’s deep distrust of bureaucracy and the bourgeoisie but was far more paranoid than he – possibly owing largely to the fact that he was, unlike Lenin, of relatively low background and was more predisposed to distrust those around him.
The creation of a strong state, during both their reigns, relied heavily on propaganda, and both Stalin and Lenin were intimately concerned with matters of propaganda. Despite the fact that they were both essentially dictators and could force the peasantry and those around them to do whatever they desired, they both placed immense value in the power of propaganda. As Source 2 suggests, “art was one of the regime’s most important tools for establishing the cult of the leader.” Source 1 claims that “Stalin believed that control of culture was as important as that of the economy.
He agreed with Lenin that in a revolutionary society, culture had to be engaged with the Communist Party.” Propaganda was arguably doubly important for Stalin given the fact that he had to reconstruct his image as being that of an ardent disciple of Lenin’s – especially at the beginning of his rise to power – such that Trotsky could not claim that title himself. There are other, more pertinent reasons for Stalin’s special emphasis on propaganda and those will be expanded upon in a later paragraph dealing with Stalin’s relationship with Stalin.
However, in terms of portraying themselves as leaders, Lenin and Stalin were extremely different. Lenin hated the lionising rhetoric prevalent throughout his reign that increased after the attempt on his life in 1918, and stamped hard on post-revolutionary attempts to memorialise his greatness or invoke religious imagery to portray him as being godlike. Stalin, on the other hand, was far more favourable to the glorification, and in fact, perpetuated it by approving biographies that were largely hagiographic in their content.
He was, however, very good at manipulating certain situations and his behaviour to his advantage – an example of which in his acting modest and demure while working under Lenin, in order to establish his image as a faithful and ardent disciple. Furthermore, he profited even more from this comparatively low public profile because his competitors wrote him off as a threat as a result of his backroom, administrative job that didn’t put on display the full scope of his abilities – therefore giving him an edge over them.
Therefore, in terms of how much value was placed on propaganda, Stalin certainly did continue Lenin’s legacy. However, in terms of recognition and need for personal validation, Stalin was far less modest and low-key than a true socialist leader – or at least the sort Lenin worked hard to be – should be.
Possibly the most decisive factor of the extent of Stalin’s continuation or betrayal of Lenin’s legacy is Lenin’s personal relationship with him, as it would portray Lenin’s approval of his actions and therefore how he perceived Stalin would rule. This, like many things in the two of these leaders’ lives, was rather complicated and changed considerably over time. Perhaps the most compelling evidence for the case that there is a fundamental distinction between the content and styles of Leninism and Stalinism – and therefore that Stalin betrayed Lenin – appears in Lenin’s last writings.
In his Letter to Congress – Lenin’s Testament – he made it explicit that “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.” He was convinced that Stalin constituted the largest threat to the unity of the party and that this was a matter “which can assume decisive importance”. What solidifies Stalin’s betrayal of Lenin even more are not these statements – damning enough as they were – but rather the swift and decisive actions Stalin took to cover these statements up and continue to portray himself as Lenin’s chosen heir, rather than his rival, Trotsky.
This was one of the main reasons he was so focused on propaganda – he had to maintain an image that was far from the truth, as the perceived support of and patronisation by Lenin was essential – arguably above all other factors – for the success of his rule. He convinced other members of the party of whom Lenin had written unfavourably – Zinoviev and Kamenev – to help him prevent the release of these statements. Furthermore, he made many efforts to undermine and power or legitimacy Trotsky may have had as the successor to the position of the leader of Russia; the most notable of which was misleading him about the date of Lenin’s funeral, causing him to miss it and thus using that as rhetoric against Trotsky.
These actions of Stalin’s should, by all means, place the evidence firmly as being in favour of the argument that Stalin betrayed Lenin’s legacy. However, it is important also to note that despite these disparaging remarks made against Stalin, his rapid elevation to the directing bodies of the party was wholly at Lenin’s personal insistence. Stalin and his assistant Ordzhonikidhe were catapulted straight to the top of the ranks of Lenin himself, for example, being appointed to the four-man Russian Bureau which was charged with directing the party’s activities in Russia.
When making arguments against Stalin, it is oft forgotten that it was Lenin himself who gave him the power he would later use to “betray” Lenin’s legacy, as it were. However, considering Lenin’s observations of Stalin most immediate to the beginning of the latter taking over, it is safe to say that Lenin’s views of and Stalin are strong evidence for the argument that Stalin betrayed his legacy.
Though Lenin’s rule was rife with many features that define Stalinism, such as personalised and centralised control, the cult of personality, use of terror and the enhanced role of the secret police, effective propaganda, and cultural uniformity the fundamental difference between the two was ideological.
All the horrors that transpired during Lenin’s rule could be reasonably argued as not being for his personal gain – evidenced by the simple lifestyle he led to his death – but rather as a misguided scrabble for the “greater good” – achieving true communism – whereas Stalin’s bloody dictatorship came from some sort of personal hunger for power, prestige, and control.
This is evident in commonly accepted schools of thought that while the theoretical, psychological and institutional bases of the Stalinist aspiration for total control over society and individuals was firmly established by Lenin, Stalinism was, in all essential respects, the “illegitimate offspring” of Leninism, and therefore a betrayal of his legacy.