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to break our links with Leninism as well; whether Lenin’s very thought and experience have not been historically superseded.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.

The reduction of Lenin’s thought to a systematic, concentrated form, and the construction of a finished theoretical system, involved not only the exclusion of everything that was considered accidental to the development of his thought, but also the separation of the end-result from the process that generated it—from the oscillations, approximations, mistakes and corrections essential to the process itself. Moreover, it should be realized that the process remained incomplete, and was cut short at a moment of profound intellectual tension, when Lenin was searching with difficulty for a new way forward. Thus the whole project of his successors was from the start based on a mystification. What happened was similar to the well-known story of the separation of Hegel’s method and system, but with a strange dual inversion: what was now put aside was Lenin’s method, whilst his system, which had still to be constructed, was ‘retained’. But who was to construct it? Presumably the Party, in the person of the departed leader’s most intimate collaborators, who composed the Party’s highest body. But if these collaborators had been in agreement, the need to bring to life a Leninist system would not have arisen. They would simply have carried on Lenin’s work, following his guidance so long as it proved practical or seeking out various other paths. It was precisely because they could not agree among themselves that they felt the need of ‘Leninism’ as a subordinate instrument of the inner-Party struggle. Hence, the need of ‘Leninism’ initially asserted itself as a struggle between different Leninisms, until the consolidation of that unique ‘Leninist’ system which was nothing other than the ideological name of triumphant Stalinism.

Not even then, however, did ‘Leninism’ find its definitive shape. Its content was in a permanent state of flux: certain real or imputed ideas of Lenin were left out of one Stalinist systematization, only to be included in the next, or vice versa. (Moreover, the example of the theory of ‘socialism in one country’, which did not figure in the first edition of Stalin’s Foundations of Leninism, shows that this did not merely involve secondary questions.) Other ideas, which at one stage occupied a central place, were later relegated to the periphery of the system, or vice versa. Was not even the concept of the dictatorship of the proletariat, which is now once more a talking-point (though not yet the subject of critical research and discussion), put into cold-storage by Stalin later in his life, when he urged Communists to take up the banner of bourgeois-democratic freedoms, thrown overboard by the bourgeoisie? These kinds of fluctuation were inevitable so long as the methodological axis of the subordinate role of theoretical elaboration remained securely in place.