It has been rightly said that the relationship between Lenin and Stalin ‘is certainly one of the most complex problems that has to be faced’ in studying Soviet history and analysing Stalinism.footnote1 However, the principal difficulty is not in understanding how deep the differences are between Lenin’s conceptions and those of Stalin, on a whole series of basic political questions; this has been established in a number of excellent and clearly documented analyses, to which there seems little of substance to add.footnote2 The most awkward problem is created rather by what seems at first sight something indisputable, expressed in the observation that ‘it is in any case true that Stalin situated himself historically on the ground of Leninism, of the Bolshevik experience, the revolution and its crisis.’footnote3 This raises the question of whether, in order to sever the roots of Stalinism both in theory and in political practice, it is not necessary to break our links with Leninism as well; whether Lenin’s very thought and experience have not been historically superseded. We should approach this question without fixed preconceptions, even if we know that it involves the fate of a still vaster experience—the theory and practice of Marxism. Unless they wish to convert their theory into an act of faith, Marxists are obliged to show that they can pass this test. However, it is also necessary to consider whether it is really the case that removal of the disconcerting presence of Lenin and Marxism provides adequate protection against recrudescence of ‘the Stalin phenomenon’ in another form; or if the conclusion to be drawn is not rather that, contrary to its outward affected appearance, Stalinism is in fact essentially pre-Leninist and pre-Marxist. If that is true, then its ancestry will have to be sought elsewhere.

Of course, we shall be able to tackle this problem successfully only if we leave aside all terminological prejudice. By this I am referring not just to attribution of the term ‘Marxist-Leninist’ to any position that invokes the names of Marx and Lenin, but also to the tendency to withold it from anything that is not directly connected with, or explicable by the class struggle. For the purposes of this analysis, we can leave unresolved the question of how the development of the class struggle in Russia and the world during a determinate historical period exerted an influence over the relation of Stalin to Lenin.footnote4 It is another kind of observation which should serve as our starting-point.

When it is said that ‘Stalin situated himself historically on the ground of Leninism, of the Bolshevik experience, etc.’, we should be clear that the expression ‘Leninism’ designates a theoretical notion that was employed only after Lenin’s death; it is precisely one of the tasks of this study to clarify how this notion emerged, the way in which it was used by Stalin, and whether it may be detached from the system of Stalinism. Merely to say that Stalin falsified or deformed Leninism is quite inadequate, if we are unable to identify the original characteristics of what was falsified or deformed. But research in this direction, which as we shall see leads to rather unexpected results, requires first of all that we bring to light the practical exigencies that prompted the discovery of ‘Leninism’ (a term which had previously been mainly used in a polemical sense, by opponents of Lenin) as a theoretical system—the development and completion of classical Marxism.

As a positive term, ‘Leninism’ first entered circulation spontaneously to designate a system of political tactics. This fact was stressed by Bukharin himself, when, a few weeks after Lenin’s death, he officially launched ‘Leninism’ as the name of a theoretical system.footnote5 Criticizing the formula adopted by professors of the Communist Academy—‘Marxism in science, Leninism in tactics’—on the grounds that it reflected the prevailing underestimation of Lenin as a theoretician, Bukharin concentrated on locating the source of that underestimation in the characteristically unsystematic and unstructured development of Lenin’s work.footnote6 The argument became less clear when he explained the need to do what Lenin had not done: to give his thought a systematic form. ‘I think’, said Bukharin, ‘that Lenin’s inability to formulate his theoretical conceptions in a concentrated form follows from the predominance in his life of action—which is in turn rooted in the nature of our epoch as an epoch of action.’footnote7 Presumably Bukharin did not think that, with Lenin’s death, the nature of the epoch had changed from one of ‘action’ to one of calm theoretical reflection. The primacy of action continued to assert itself as a compelling necessity, and Bukharin was so well aware of this that he considered ‘one of the happiest features of Lenin’s Marxism’ to be his ‘profound understanding of the subordinate role of theoretical constructions, however lofty they may be’.footnote8 The ambiguity of the formulation is striking.

This understanding became truly ‘profound’ and complete only in Stalin, when it marked a consistent and exact inversion of Lenin’s characteristic approach. Bukharin’s view here represents only a first tiny seed of what was to follow. Nevertheless, we can recognize the original contradiction that spawned the agitational myth of ‘Leninism’, and which that myth sought to obscure. On the one hand, Bukharin acknowledged that lack of system and structure is not an accidental defect or limitation, but an intrinsic characteristic of Lenin’s theoretical elaboration. On the other hand, however, he sought to eliminate this very characteristic, stressing the need to systematize Lenin’s thought, so that his theoretical strengths might be recognized by everyone. This need also corresponds to the practical exigency of ensuring party unity around a solid theoretical core; but the manner in which it did so was fraught with consequences that Bukharin did not even suspect at the time.