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1922-24 - Stalin versus Lenin

In general Stalin did not enjoy great prestige among or devotion from his party comrades. The undesirable traits ascribed to Stalin by his adversaries were later confirmed by official Soviet spokesmen. According to Trotsky, Nikolai Krestinski, a leading Bolshevik, said that Stalin was a "bad man with yellow eyes." Nikolai Bukharin noticed Stalin's "implacable jealousy of anyone who knows more or does things better than he." "This cook," Lenin said of him, "will make only peppery dishes." "Stalin," said Trotsky, "is the outstanding mediocrity of the party."

Sensing the growing danger of a possible split in the Party leadership, Lenin wrote from his sickbed, in December 1922, a letter of advice (usually referred to since as his "Testament" ) to the party leaders in which he made some suggestions for securing the stability of the party :

" . . the fundamental factor ... is such members of the Central Committee as Stalin and Trotsky. The relation between them constitutes, in my opinion, a big half of the danger of that split. . . . Comrade Stalin, having become General Secretary, has concentrated an enormous power in his hands; and I am not sure that he always knows how to use that power with sufficient caution. On the other hand, Comrade Trotsky, as was proved by his struggle against the Central Committee in connection with the question of the People's Commissariat of Ways and Communications, is distinguished not only by his exceptional abilities personally he is, to be sure, the most able man in the present Central Committee but also by his too far-reaching self-confidence and a disposition to be too much attracted by the purely administrative side of affairs.

These two qualities of the two most able leaders of the present Central Committee might, quite innocently, lead to a split; if our party does not take measures to prevent it, a split might arise unexpectedly. "

In his letter, Lenin mentioned, in addition to Trotsky and Stalin, four other outstanding leaders Zinoviev, Kamenev, Bukharin, Pyatakov. A few days later (January 4, 1923 ) he added a special postscript on Stalin: ". . . Stalin is too rude, and this fault, entirely supportable in relations among us Communists, becomes insupportable in the office of General Secretary. Therefore, I propose to the comrades to find a way to remove Stalin from that position and appoint to it another man who in all respects differs from Stalin only in superiority namely, more patient, more loyal, more polite and more attentive to comrades, less capricious, etc. This circumstance may seem an insignificant trifle, but I think that from the point of view of preventing a split and from the point of view of the relation between Stalin and Trotsky, which I discussed above, it is not a trifle, or it is such a trifle as may acquire a decisive significance."

In light of subsequent revelations, Trotsky's later statement that Stalin, angered by Lenin's attitude, had proposed giving poison to his teacher, may well be true. In February 1923, Stalin told the Politburo that Lenin had asked him for poison.

"I see before me [Trotsky recalled] the pale and silent Kamenev, who sincerely loved Lenin, and Zinoviev, bewildered, as always at difficult moments. Had they known about Lenin's request even before the session? Or had Stalin sprung this as a surprise on his allies in the triumvirate as well as on me?

"Naturally, we cannot even consider carrying out this request!" I exclaimed. "Guetier [Lenin's physician] has not lost hope. Lenin can still recover."

"I told him all that," Stalin replied, not without a touch of annoyance. "But he wouldn't listen to reason. The Old Man is suffering. He says he wants to have the poison at hand . . . he'll use it only when he is convinced that his condition is hopeless." "Anyway, it's out of the question," I insisted this time, I think, with Zinoviev's support. "He might succumb to a passing mood and take the irrevocable step."

"The Old Man is suffering," Stalin repeated, staring vaguely past us and, as before, saying nothing one way or the other. A line of thought parallel to the conversation but not quite in consonance with it must have been running through his mind."

Trotsky thought it possible that Stalin had not invented Lenin's request, but there ". . . naturally arises the question: how and why did Lenin, who at the time was extremely suspicious of Stalin, turn to him with such a request, which on the face of it, presupposed the highest degree of personal confidence? A mere month before he made this request of Stalin, Lenin had written his pitiless postscript to the Testament. Several days after making this request, he broke off all personal relations with him. Stalin himself could not fail to ask himself the question : why did Lenin turn to him of all people? The answer is simple: Lenin saw in Stalin the only man who would grant his tragic request, since he was directly interested in doing so."

Among the specific issues which became a source of antagonism between Stalin and Lenin during the last months of Lenin's life was the nationality policy. The misunderstandings and disputes started in con- nection with the issue of Georgia as a member state of the prospective Soviet Union. The prevailing trend among the Georgian Communists was toward a Soviet Georgia independent of the Russian Soviet state; Stalin, himself a Georgian, but now a strong power in the government of a great country, strove for a "big state" in which Georgia would enjoy only a degree of "autonomy." The term "autonomization" veiled the drive for centralization under Russian leadership. In other national areas, especially in the Ukraine, trends toward independence were strong among Communists.

In his fight against the Georgian Communist majority, Stalin was insulting and rude; the conduct of his two lieutenants, Feliks Dzerzhinski and Grigori Ordzhonikidze ("Sergo"), provoked indignation and protests. From his sickbed Lenin, who had earlier encouraged and supported a rapid and forcible extension of the Soviet state, came out with significant statements directed at Stalin and his group, whom he accused of reviving the methods of old Russian autocracy in regard to national minorities :

". . . what we call ours is an apparatus that is still thoroughly alien to us, representing a bourgeois Tsarist mechanism which we have had no chance to conquer during the past five years, in the absence of help from [a revolution in] other countries, and in view of the overriding pressure of the "business" of war and the struggle against famine."

Stalin's projected constitution of the Soviet Union contained, of course, provision for the right of Soviet Union members "to withdraw from the Union." On this point, Lenin said : ... it is quite obvious that the "freedom to withdraw from the Union," with which we justify ourselves, will prove to be nothing but a scrap of paper, incapable of defending the minorities in Russia from the incursions of that hundred percent Russian, the Great-Russian, the chauvinist, in reality, the scoundrel and despoiler which the typical Russian bureaucrat is. There can be no doubt that the insignificant percentage of Soviet and sovietized workers will drown in this Great-Russian sea of chauvinist riff-raff like a fly in milk. "

In an article prepared for the press, Lenin attacked Stalin :

"I think that a fatal role was played here by Stalin's haste and administrative impulsiveness, and also by his spiteful attitude towards the much talked of "social nationalism." Spitefulness in general plays the worst possible role in politics.

"I am afraid that Com. Dzerzhinsky also, when he went to the Caucasus to investigate the case of the "crimes" of these "social nationalists," distinguished himself there only by his one-hundred percent Russian attitude (it is common knowledge that the Russified non-Russian always likes to exaggerate when it comes to 100% Russian attitudes)."

The relations between a great nation and national minorities must be based, wrote the dying leader, on new principles, different from the system which had prevailed before the revolution. Internationalism, Lenin said

" . . . must consist not merely in a formal assertion of equality among nations but in such inequality by which the oppressing great nation compensates for that inequality which actually exists in life. . . .

"A Georgian who adopts a scornful attitude towards this side of the matter, who scornfully accuses others of "social nationalism" (when he is himself not only a real and authentic "social nationalist," but also a brutal Great-Russian Derzhimorda [note: A character in Gogol's Inspector General, whose very name is a symbol of a narrow and domineering police mentality.]), that Georgian actually violates the interests of proletarian class solidarity. For nothing so hinders the development and consolidation of proletarian class solidarity as much as national injustice. "

In another move against the General Secretary, Lenin asked Trotsky to take over the defense of the Georgians against Stalin:

"Dear Com. Trotsky.

I ask you urgently to undertake the defense of the Georgia case in the C. C. of the party. This case is at present "being shot at" by Stalin and Dzerzhinsky and I cannot count on their objectivity. Quite the contrary. If you should agree to undertake the defense of that case, I would be at ease. "

Lenin's suggestion for the removal of Stalin came too late, however; Stalin was already firmly entrenched in the Secretariat. With the public and even party members uninformed about the Lenin-Stalin controversy, the General Secretary could assume the role of the most loyal of Lenin's disciples; he maintained this claim for the rest of his life. At Lenin's funeral he took an oath of eternal loyalty and devotion to Lenin's policies :

"Departing from us, Comrade Lenin enjoined us to hold high and guard the purity of the great title of member of the Party. We vow to you, Comrade Lenin, that we shall fulfil your behest with honor!

"Departing from us, Comrade Lenin enjoined us to strengthen with all our might the alliance of the workers and peasants. We vow to you, Comrade Lenin, that this behest, too, we shall fulfil with honor!

"Departing from us, Comrade Lenin enjoined us to strengthen and extend the Union of Republics. We vow to you, Comrade Lenin, that this behest, too, we shall fulfil with honour!

"Departing from us, Comrade Lenin enjoined us to remain faithful to the principles of the Communist International. We vow to you, Comrade Lenin, that we shall not spare our lives to strengthen and extend the Union of the Working People of the whole world the Communist International! "

Gary Kern noted in 2003 that "For Stalin, bugging friend and foe was an essential part of politics. Since the early 1920s, he had kept a special telephone beneath his desk in the Kremlin for listening in on the private conversations of other Politburo members speaking on an exclusive line. Thus, all through the inner-Party struggle for succession, while leader Vladimir Lenin lay dying and for years after he died in 1924, Stalin was able to eavesdrop on all of his comrades, who spoke openly on the line, believing that, since there was no operator (as on the other Kremlin lines), the new vertushka (dial) phone was safe. It was not: Stalin magically knew all of their nighttime thoughts the next morning, outmaneuvered them every day, and eventually had most of them shot."




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