Lenin, Stalin and the ‘continuity theory’

Was Lenin any different to Stalin in terms of personality, policies and the way he governed the USSR?

Parallels between Lenin and Stalin have been drawn time and time again by many scholars; the common charge is that Stalin’s path to dictatorship was paved by Lenin, each being equally as villainous. Indeed, this is essentially the position championed by Stalin, who took drastic measures to uphold this myth in his lifetime. However, this essay will argue that this stance is highly ideological, and largely ahistorical. Rather, there is a wealth of evidence to say that Lenin and Stalin were far more at odds with each other than is popularly recognised.


Rather than indulging in mere speculation over whether Lenin would have approved of the policies implemented under Stalin, it is of more use to understand the policies of the two whilst they were both alive and in the party. Up until 1917 Stalin had almost no responsibility in terms of policy in the Bolshevik Party. When he found himself in a position of influence in March 1917 – whilst many key Bolsheviks were still in exile – he pushed the party to the far right. Along with Kamenev, Stalin changed the line in Pravda to one sympathetic to the Provisional Government, out of fear of ‘repelling the bourgeoisie’. Furthermore, Stalin had urged for the Bolsheviks to reunite with the Mensheviks. When Lenin returned from exile in April, he presented the party with his famous Theses, and scorned those in the party who supported the Provisional Government, condemning the position as a ‘betrayal of socialism’, and added ‘if that’s your position, our ways part.’

Stalin was driven ‘into protective silence’ after Lenin’s put-downs. He would from then on, keep ‘mum, allow other to commit themselves, but once in a while he would burst out against Lenin.’ One of the most important of these outbursts would be on the eve of the October Revolution, when Stalin supported Kamenev and Zinoviev’s announcement in the press that they were against the imminent insurrection, making an official party declaration in Pravda supporting this stance. This confused the entire party, and Lenin shunned the affair as ‘infinitely vile’.

But the most significant breach between the two would be over the question of national minorities, not long before Lenin’s death. Lenin urged for ‘self-determination’ for independent Republics, but Stalin was pushing for their ‘autonomization’ into the Russian Federation. But Stalin’s conduct during the affair would lead to Lenin’s accusation of Stalin as a Great Russian Chauvinist, who was ‘breaking the rules of proletarian internationalism and … falling into an imperialistic attitude.’ Moshe Lewin explains how this was a key issue which led to Lenin’s denunciation of Stalin in his testament. According to Trotsky, Lenin was ‘systematically preparing to deliver at the twelfth congress a crushing blow at Stalin,’ but not only on the national question, but ’on the question of monopoly of foreign trade, … on questions of the régime in the party, of the worker-peasant inspection, and of the commission of control.’

Finally, ‘Socialism in One Country’ is was a fundamental policy of the Stalinist régime and one which played a key role in Stalin’s rise to power. Richard Gellately attempts to draw parallels between Lenin and Stalin by claiming that ‘Lenin himself had suggested, in 1915, that it might be possible to achieve the victory of Socialism in one country.’ However, Lenin was an internationalist and, as Liebman put it, ‘the claim to be able to build a complete socialist society in a single country was … alien to Leninism’. Lenin had always expressed the view that ‘the final victory of socialism in a single country is of course impossible’, and in 1922, in one of the final articles he would write, Lenin reiterated that

we have not finished building even the foundations of socialist economy and the hostile powers of moribund capitalism can still deprive us of that. We must clearly appreciate this and frankly admit it; for there is nothing more dangerous than illusions . . . the joint efforts of the workers of several advanced countries are needed for the victory of socialism. We are still alone and in a backward country.

What we can draw from all this is that Lenin and Stalin differed persistently in the directions they wished to take in major policy areas, both before and after the Bolshevik Revolution, and it would have been very unlikely that Lenin would have backed the policies that would be pursued by Stalin.

Party Governance

As we have seen, in reality Lenin and Stalin differed on most key policies while Lenin was alive. In terms of governance, we can draw a similar conclusion. Erik Van Ree argues that, if Lenin had lived, he ‘would most likely not have allowed the debate in the party leadership of the mid-nineteen twenties. He would have exerted all his strength to nip it in the bud and set the Central Control Commission to work to shut up his colleagues’, resorting to ‘a purging operation’, such as occurred under Stalin. However, on the basis of Lenin’s governance whilst alive, there is no indication that he would have been in favour in this ‘silencing’ of opposition.

Open debate within the Bolshevik Party under Lenin’s leadership was not only permitted but welcomed. Leibman explains how Lenin ‘often succeeded in overcoming . . . opposition, by a combination of his power of conviction and the pressure of facts.’ But indeed, ‘he also frequently found himself in a minority, and obliged therefore to give up the policy he wished to get accepted by the Party or by the state.’ This can be observed in, for example, the issue of the Brest-Litovsk peace treaty of 1918, where one of the first major splits occurred. Lenin initially found his position for immediate peace in a minority, but as events unfolded he was able to negotiate his case through discussion and debate and ultimately his position was taken with a modest majority. Trotsky, in his autobiography, explains that ‘Lenin’s point could have been carried out by means of a split in the party and a coup d’état … and yet, every day was bound to increase the number of Lenin’s followers.’ As Liebman puts it, ‘there was no sphere in which the ‘dictator’ did not have to accept defeat.’ These are scenarios inconceivable under Stalin, who of course had all of his opponents within the party executed.

Lenin’s banning of factions at the 10th Party Congress is often pointed to as a key policy which paved the way for Stalin’s autocratic régime. However, during the same Party Congress that the banning of factions was announced, Alexandra Kollontai and Alexander Shlyapnikov – leaders of the main Bolshevik faction ‘Workers’ Opposition’ – were elected to the Central Committee. Lenin had even appealed to the faction to ‘come and help us, come closer and help us in the fight’. It would be impossible for us imagine a scenario where Stalin would invite his greatest opponent, Trotsky, to the Central Committee. Lenin was not interested in suppressing opposition, as was the case of Stalin, but rather to prevent weakening, or even a split, in the party at a time of great instability. As Liebman put it, ‘nothing was less like the dictatorial autocracy of Stalinism than the kind of authority that Lenin exercised in the Bolshevik Party and the Soviet state.’

Richard Pipes argues that the ‘Bolshevik terror’ was not a defensive weapon, but rather ‘an instrument of governance’. He bases his argument on the fact that although ‘indiscriminate massacres’ – as he calls them – halted after the end of the Civil War, the laws and institutions used  (specifically the Cheka) were maintained, available for Stalin disposal in the future. But which country on earth, invaded by multiple armies, would simply disarm itself? Russia was still extremely weak and vulnerable after the civil war, and the threat of counter-revolution war very real. Furthermore, it is telling that Pipes fails to mention the thousands of Jews massacred by the White Army in Ukraine, and other ‘indiscriminate massacres’ elsewhere by anti-Bolshevik forces. As discussed, Stalin’s terror was used against his own party, against Lenin’s own Central Committee members and comrades, to secure his own position.


According to Gellately, Lenin ‘appreciated Stalin deeply. He had fostered him in important ways and ultimately favored him above all the other rivals at the top of the party.’ A bold statement, yet referenced to Lenin’s Testament: a text where no such evidence can be found. Rather, in his famous testament, Lenin doubts Stalin’s ability to use his position as General Secretary wisely, and calls for his comrades to replace him with someone ‘who in all other respects differs from Comrade Stalin’. Less than a month later, Lenin announced in a note to Stalin that he was ‘breaking off all personal and comradely relations with him.’ Stalin’s rudeness towards not only his wife, Nadezhda Krupskaya, also an active member of the Bolsheviks, but other Party members, was clearly an issue to Lenin and at odds with his own standard of conduct within the party. Even historians such as Orlando Figes and Robert Service – by no means admirers of Lenin – narrate Lenin’s growing antipathy for Stalin before his death, with Service stating that he ‘would have continued the campaign against Stalin if he had not suffered yet another medical crisis’.

The ‘Cult of Personality’ was an important part of Stalin’s rule over the Soviet Union; but clearly one not in line with Lenin’s nature nor with his values. Stalin had expressed his dismay over Lenin’s rejection of ceremony, recalling in a speech not long after Lenin’s death, ‘what . . . was to my disappointment to learn that Lenin had arrived at the conference before the delegates, had settled himself somewhere in a corner, and was unassumingly carrying on a conversation, a most ordinary conversation with the most ordinary delegates at the conference. I will not conceal from you that at that time this seemed to me to be something of a violation of certain essential rules.’ Indeed, it would be under Stalin’s order that Lenin’s corpse would be embalmed and displayed in Moscow, against the wishes of Lenin, his wife and family who all wished for him to be buried next to his mother’s grave in Petrograd. This had ‘helped to dissimulate a type of dictatorship utterly foreign to [Lenin’s] plans,’ and had done just what Lenin had predicted in State and Revolution, in which he explains how, after great revolutionaries have died,

attempts are made to convert them into harmless icons, to canonise them, so to say, and to hallow their names to a certain extent for the ‘consolation’ of the oppressed classes and with the object of duping the latter, while at the same time robbing the revolutionary theory of its substance, blunting its revolutionary edge and vulgarising it.


By use of historical record, we can be certain that Lenin was different in many ways to Stalin. Although we must guard against speculation, evidence heavily suggests that Lenin would have shared little sympathy for Stalin’s rule. The function of this continuity thesis – that Stalin was merely a continuation of Lenin and his policies – is more than often an ideological one; as Ernest Mandel put it, it ‘is to discredit Bolshevism and, therewith, the proletarian revolution, by means of Stalin’s crimes.’ Historians who pursue this anti-Bolshevik myth simply mirror Stalin’s own efforts to rewrite history to validate his claim as Lenin’s legitimate heir.



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