Lenin’s Testament refers to a document written by Vladimir Lenin during the last weeks of 1922 and the first week of 1923. In his infamous testament, Lenin proposed changes to be made to the structure of Soviet governing bodies. In addition, he also commented on the leading and senior members of the Soviet leadership and suggested that Stalin be removed from his position as the Secretary General of the Soviet Party’s Central Committee. In his final letters to the Soviet Union, Lenin warned that Stalin held much power and was too dangerous. Lenin was not a fan of Stalin and that is why in his final testament, he requested for his removal from the office. He however faced opposition from factions of Bolshevik Party, which ensured that the document was not widely available.
According to Lewin, Lenin was desperately concerned about the escalating growth of bureaucracy in the Soviet Union during the last days of his life (22). Lenin took a Marxist approach in explaining what bureaucracy entailed by describing it as a parasitic, capitalistic growth on the organism of the workers’ state, which arose out of the isolation of the revolution in a backyard, illiterate peasant country. As presented in one of his last articles, Better Fewer But Better, had the idea that even though the October revolution had overthrown the old order, the revolution had negative impacts on the Tsarist state, which he claimed had been ruthlessly purged and suppressed. According to him, the elements of the old order including chronic cultural and economic backwardness had regenerated into the society with emergence of power and privilege among few individuals. As explained by Lewin, a society where science, art, and government are exclusively a privilege of a minority, then that minority will obviously use and abuse its power and positions in serving its own selfish interest (75). Consequently, such a state of affairs is unavoidable provided that the large majority of the population is forced to work for long hours in agriculture and industry just to get a means of survival.
Following the revolution, the condition of the industry was deteriorated and working days lengthened instead of reducing them. Workers were forced to work for more than ten hours a day only to get subsistence rations; some even worked during weekends without compensation. But as explained by Trotsky, people are only willing to sacrifice their “today” for “tomorrow” only to some limits. Inexorably, the strain of revolution, of war, of famine that killed more than five million, of four years of gory war, all served to demoralize the working class in terms of morale and numbers.
Even though the NEP stabilized the economy, it brought with it new dangers including creation of small capitalism, in particular in the countryside where the rich accumulated wealth at the expense of the poor peasants. The rival of the industry was only confined to the light industry producing consumer goods owing to the fact the demand was tied to the peasantry, especially the rich peasants. This led to the stagnation of heavy industry which was the key to socialist construction. The result of this was massive unemployment in which more than two million people lacked jobs in towns by 1922. At the Ninth Congress of Soviet Union in 1921, Lenin remarked: "Excuse me, but what do you describe as the proletariat? That class of laborers which is employed by large-scale industry. But where is this large-scale industry? What sort of proletariat is this? Where is your industry? Why is it idle?" (Works, vol. 33, p. 174). At the Eleventh Party Congress in March 1922, Lenin pointed out that the majority of people who worked at the factories during that period constituted of non-proletarian, who he claimed were those escaping from serving in military. According to Lenin, those who went to work in factories were casual elements of all descriptions (Works, vol. 33, p. 299).
According to sources, Lenin wanted the testament to be read out at the XII Party Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, which was scheduled for April 1923. However, Lenin suffered from a serious stroke in March 1923 that incapacitated and rendered him unable to speak. As a result, his wife, Nadezhda Krupskaya, made the document a secret with hopes that Lenin would recover. She only produced the document following the death of his husband on January 21, 1924 to the Communist Party Central Committee Secretariat and requested the authorities to avail it to the delegates of the XII Party Congress in May 1924.
In his testament, Lenin presented the three powerful men (the ruling triumvirate) including Stalin, Lev Kamenev, and Grigory Zinoviev with an uncomfortable dilemma. All the three men would have preferred to suppress the testament because it was very critical to them as well as their ally Nikolao Bukharin and their opponents Georgy Pyatakov and Leon Trotsky. Even though Lenin’s comments were detrimental to all the Communist leaders, the person who stood out to lose most was Joseph Stalin because the only practical suggestion provided in the testament was to remove him from the position he held as the General Secretary of the Party's Central Committee.
Conversely, the leadership was forced to abide by Lenin’s wishes immediately after his death, especially with the pressure coming from his widow on executing his wishes. In addition, the leadership was in a compromising state of a factional struggle over control of the Party, with the ruling party itself made up of groups that are loosely allied in the verge of falling apart, which made a cover up out of question. The final compromise came after Kamenev read out the text at the Council of Elders of the thirteenth Congress in which the triumvirate prescribed the conditions under which Lenin’s testament should be availed. Under these conditions, the testament would only be read by the representatives of the Party leadership separately to each regional delegation. The second condition was that none would be allowed to make notes. Lastly, no reference would be made to the testament during any plenary meeting organized by the Congress. The testament only appeared in a pamphlet by Trotsky in 1934.
The proposal received a majority vote despite Krupskaya’s oppositions. The result was the Lenin’s testament did not receive the effect he had anticipated and Stalin retained his position as the General Secretary. The failure of the Congress to make the document widely available remained a contentious issue during the struggle that ensued between the Left Opposition and the Stalin-Bukharin faction in 1924 to 1927. Stalin was forced to read the testament again following pressure emanating from the opposition at the Central Committee meeting held in July 1926.
Following the opposition, the testament was edited and printed in a December 1927 in a limited edition that was only available to fifteenth Party Congress delegates. The Party leadership undermined a case of making the testament more widely available through an agreement that printing the document publicly would destroy the party as a whole. The people of the West soon became aware of the content of the testament and facts surrounding its concealment. This was after Max Eastman described the incidents surrounding controversy in Since Lenin Died (1925). The leadership of the Soviet was fast enough to denounce Eastman’s account and forced Trotsky through the Party discipline to write an article denouncing version of events presented by Eastman. During this time, Trotsky was still a member of the Politburo. The New York Times published a full English language version of Lenin’s testament in 1926.
Stalin was able to establish himself as unquestionable leader of the Communist Party which enabled him to control any opposition. He made a punishable offense for any reference to Lenin’s testament. Continuous denial of the existence of Lenin’s testament remained the cornerstone of Soviets historiography until Stalin died on March 5, 1953. The document was officially published by the Soviet government in 1956 following denunciation of Stalin by Nikita Khrushchev at the Twentieth Party Congress in 1956.
Contents of Lenin’s Last Testament
Lenin’s letter contains a critique of the government of the Soviet as it was then, warning people of the dangers he foresaw and making recommendations for the future. In his letters, some of the suggestions he made include giving the State Planning Committee legislative powers, increasing the number of people in the Party’s Central Committee, and the policy of nationalities that Stalin had implemented. In his criticism of Stalin and Trotsky, Lenin believes that Stalin’s position as the Secretary General would give him unlimited authority which he would only use without sufficient caution. To Trotsky, Lenin writes “He is personally perhaps the most capable man in the present C.C., but he has displayed excessive self-assurance and shown excessive preoccupation with the purely administrative side of the work” (Trotsky 5). Lenin had a strong feeling that Stalin had much more power than he was able to handle, and he proposed that he would be too dangerous to succeed him. In a letter written by Lenin few weeks later, he suggested for the removal of Stalin from the position of General Secretary of the Party. In his letter, Lenin refers to Stalin as too rude which makes him incapable of holding the post of a Secretary General. Even though Lenin detest this trait, he however says that rudeness is tolerable in handling Communists but not in holding office positions. Lenin believes that Stalin is more tolerant and this could compromise the solidarity of the Soviet and result into a split.
According to Lenin, Stalin held too much power which would make him dangerous to the welfare of the State. In his opinion, the State Planning Commission is composed experienced experts, people, and representatives of science and technology that makes them more able to make correct judgment in running legislative affairs. The major idea presented in the testament focuses on the characterization of the mutual relations of Stalin and Trotsky, “the two most able leaders of the present Central Committee.” After mentioning the “exceptional abilities” of Trotsky, whom Lenin refers to as “the most able man in the present Central Committee,” Lenin instantaneously reverts to his undesirable traits. He refers to him as “far-reaching self-confidence” and “a disposition to be too much attracted by the purely administrative side of affairs.” Lenin believes that both Stalin and Trotsky do not have any understanding of peasants and lack innate motive for revolution. Lenin comments on the other side of Stalin’s trait as someone who once concentrates enough power in his hands may lack the ability to control or handle that power.
According to the testament, Lenin recommends that the number of members of the Central Committee be increase to fifty, and if possible even to a hundred to dilute the centrifugal tendencies in the Political Bureau. This proposed increase to the number of the Central Committee serves as a guarantee against personal wrangles. However, this proposal appeared inadequate to Lenin only ten days later and he summed it up with a supplementary proposal that gave the whole document its final physiognomy: “I propose to the comrades to find a way to remove Stalin from that position and appoint to it another man who in all other respects differs from Stalin only in superiority – namely; more patient, more loyal, more polite and more attentive to comrades, less capricious, etc.”
Lenin dictated the testament while trying to give his critical evaluation of Stalin with restrained expression as he could. However, his tone become sharper as time moved until the last time his voice could not pronounce any word. Needless to say, his testament presented enough information to encourage the demand for a change of the holder of General Secretary’s post. Beside untrustworthiness and rudeness, Stalin is accused of lack of loyalty. Up to this point, Stalin’s characterization becomes an accusation. Apparently, this testament could not have surprised Stalin even though this did less in softening the blow. On his first encounter with the document, Stalin gave out a short comment which exposed his real feelings toward Lenin. It is unfortunate that that this winged phrase does not qualify to be quoted in print.
Lenin’s concluding remarks on the testament shows biasness on one side, the danger that lies ahead. In order to remove Stalin from power meant cutting him off from the apparatus, to deny him the chance or possibility of holding on to power, and to dispossess him of the power that he had accumulated in his hands during his tenure in the office. From Lenin’s testament, whom should they consider for the post of Secretary General? The answer would be someone with the opposite qualities of Stalin, someone more loyal, more patient, and less capricious. This is the phrase that captivated Stalin’s attention. In his mind, Lenin considered him easily replaceable, since he recommended that they look for someone who is more suitable for his post. While tendering his resignation as a formality, Stalin whimsically kept repeating: “Well, I really am rude Ilyich suggested that you find another who would differ from me only in greater politeness. Well, try to find him” (Trotsky 3). To this, one of Stalin’s then friends told him not to mind as they were not afraid of rudeness since “the whole party is rude, proletarian.” From this response, the concept of politeness was indirectly attributed to Lenin. For the rest of the adverse traits that Lenin accused Stalin of, not even his friends could utter a word.
Lenin’s attitude towards Stalin
After realizing that Lenin’s letter received publicity among leaders of the Party, and the troika having crumbled into pieces by that time, Stalin and his close allies resorted to the same old stories about the incompetent condition of Lenin when the later was dictated. In real sense, the testament as well as the letter breaking off relations between the two was written between December 1922 and early March 1923, a period in which Lenin produced a series of organized articles that the party some of his greatest writings. It is apparent that the break-up with Stalin was not sudden, but it emanated from a long series of prior events, revolving around principal and practical matters.
Even though he Lenin detested Stalin’s traits, he however liked his tenacity, firmness of character, and even craftiness and ruthlessness – desirable qualities in war and consequently in the general staff. However, Lenin failed to acknowledge that these traits, even to an extraordinary level, were sufficient to ensure successful leadership of the state and party. In Lenin’s view, he did not see a statesman in the style he wanted but a revolutionist. Lenin attached great importance to theory in regard to political struggle. Stalin was considered a theoretician by none, and even he himself never made any pretence to this vocation until 1924. However, his weakness in theory was only known in a small circle. He did not know any foreign language, had insufficient knowledge of the West, nor did he bother to engage in discussions involving international worker’s movements. To Lenin, Stalin was only fit for organizing wars and party administration, but even in these areas, Lenin still made substantial reservations.
Lenin’s last testament is a very contradictory documenting considering the fact that he is the one who proposed Stalin as Secretary General after realizing that he could no longer serve effectively. Many held the belief that Stalin would be more than Lenin’s puppet. Due bad health, Lenin was unable to watch over Stalin who was busy building an empire of his own. Stalin started expelling supporters allied to any rival, especially on the side of Trotsky. In late 1922, a disagreement arose in regard to foreign trade when Lenin’s proposals were rejected. Following this event, Lenin wrote a letter to Trotsky regarding his concern to the growing power of Stalin and asking for his support against him. The effort was fruitful and the trade agreement reverted. Lenin wrote another letter to Trotsky suggesting for an alliance. From the flow of these events, it is evident that Lenin noticed that Stalin was gaining more power and could actually succeed him as the next Secretary General. Lenin noticed that Stalin was not loyal after rejecting his proposal over foreign trade. In addition to these, Stalin’s move to take control of the party upset Lenin who had given him the responsibility to take care of the party. In conclusion, it is the events that occurred after Lenin got hospitalized that made him write against Stalin. Lenin perception of Stalin changed drastically with the as he watched the way the Soviet was being governed.
Lenin Collected Works, Volume 33 (p. 123-427)
Lewin, Moshe. Lenin’s Last Struggle. University of Michigan Press, 2005. Print.
Trotsky, Leone. On the Suppressed Testament of Lenin. Pioneer Publishers, 1932. Print.