Lenin’s Final Writings Are More Talked About Than Read

Lenin died 100 years ago today, leaving behind a batch of writings that became known as his political testament. These widely misunderstood texts shed important light on his understanding of how difficult it would be to construct a socialist system in Russia.

The tensions in the final writings of Vladimir Lenin sometimes look like contradictions, but they reflect the real conflicts of a revolutionary statesman entering unknown territory. (Nikolay Andreyev / Wikimedia Commons)

Vladimir Lenin’s last writings have given rise to a surprising range of interpretations. Despite this diversity, consensus holds that in these articles, Lenin was striking new ground, extending his critique of war communism, and deepening his conception of the New Economic Policy (NEP).

Few agree about the content of Lenin’s new direction, although one may note the following coincidence: Lenin is always seen as rejecting whatever the author in question does not like about original Bolshevism.

Yet despite some new details, the themes and concerns of the final writings faithfully reflect Lenin’s long-term outlook. No critique of war communism or deepening of the NEP can be extracted from these writings. This lack of originality does not detract from their importance but, rather, strengthens their position as Lenin’s political testament.


Lenin was a sick man when he dictated the final writings, a fact that is reflected in their unfocused, repetitive, and rambling organization. It is therefore useless to take up the articles one by one; we must discuss each of Lenin’s themes in light of all the references to them scattered throughout the writings. The three themes I will discuss are improving the apparatus, strengthening party authority, and the need for cultural revolution.

Lenin inveighed against “bureaucratism” because he wanted an effective, centralized apparatus that would be an efficient tool in the hands of the workers’ state. The Marxist aphorism about the “withering away of the state” did not mean doing away with an administrative apparatus, but rather doing away with the separation between state and society — what Robert Tucker has called “dual Russia.” The overcoming of this dualism would be achieved by full democracy, which would thus cleanse the apparatus of its “bureaucratic” defects.

Lenin’s concern in the final writings is therefore not to do away with or even to limit the scope of the state apparatus but simply to improve it. According to Lenin, the defects of the apparatus stem entirely from the prerevolutionary past: tsarist bureaucrats, bourgeois capitalists, petit-bourgeois speculators. Bureaucratism is a perezhitok starogo, a holdover from the past.

Even though Lenin cautioned the Bolsheviks that in five years, they could not expect to do very much to eliminate bureaucratism, he never suggests that war communism or the civil war had strengthened bureaucratism. Indeed, in one passage, intensified bureaucratism is associated with the NEP in particular.

Lenin does mention in passing that the party was also infected with bureaucratism, but the entire focus of his program is to use the party to cleanse (or purge) the state apparatus. The apparatus least infected by bureaucratism, the Foreign Affairs Commissariat, demonstrates this desired goal:

This apparatus is an exceptional component of our state apparatus. We have not allowed a single influential person from the old tsarist apparatus into it. All sections with any authority are composed of Communists. That is why it has already won for itself . . . the name of a reliable communist apparatus, purged to an incomparably greater extent of the old tsarist, bourgeois, and petty-bourgeois elements with which we have had to make do in other People’s Commissariats.

Lenin’s proposal for improving the apparatus is to enlist the best and the brightest of young workers and peasants in the People’s Commissariat of the Workers’ and Peasants’ Inspection, known as Rabkrin after its Russian acronym. (Peasants who are directly or indirectly associated with exploitation need not apply.)

Revolutionary Lever

The evolution of Lenin’s scheme can be traced from the letter to the congress to the first draft of “How to Reorganize Rabkrin” to the final published article. During this evolution, a number of substantive changes occur. When the proposal is first mentioned, it is assigned two aims of equal importance: preventing a split among the leadership and improving the apparatus. As Lenin works out the scheme, the first aim almost fades away and the second one becomes decisive.

At first, Lenin wanted to put the enlisted workers on the Central Committee, but between the first draft and the published article he simply substituted the Central Control Commission for the Central Committee. Lenin did not explain why he dropped his plan for enlarging the Central Committee, but I assume it is because he saw the anomaly of having people on the Central Committee who would have “full rights” and yet who would be confined to a specific task.

The switch to the Central Control Commission is also consonant with a move away from elections and toward examinations as a way of selecting the enlisted workers. In any event, the sudden switch shows that Lenin’s focus is not on the reform of any particular party institution but on enlisting fresh forces.

The point of Lenin’s scheme rests on the human — one might even say superhuman — qualities of the enlisted workers. In the first mention of the plan, the main characteristic of these workers is the negative one of not having acquired the prejudices of the new Soviet civil service. But since Lenin wants them to be thoroughly versed in up-to-date administrative science, the source of the enlisted workers had to change.

In the final version, Lenin is looking for candidates among experienced officials and students. The enlisted workers will also be irreproachable Communists, conscientious, loyal, united among themselves. They will be fearless — unafraid of authority and never speaking against their consciences. They accept nothing on faith. They will inspire the confidence of the working class, the party, and indeed the whole population.

At times, the enlisted workers will have to resort to craftiness. Since a major cause of the ineffectiveness of the apparatus was the semiconscious sabotage of the bureaucrats, the methods of intelligence work will be appropriate. These methods will “sometimes be directed to rather remote sources or in a roundabout way,” and therefore Lenin advised the antibureaucratic crusaders to work out “special ruses to screen their movements.” Lenin’s call for unorthodox methods against class-inspired sabotage is perhaps the part of the testament closest to the Stalinist outlook.

Lenin’s aim is to “concentrate in Rabkrin human material of a truly contemporary kind, that is, fully comparable to the best western European models.” After training by “highly qualified specialists” and party leaders, the enlisted workers will improve Rabkrin and, through Rabkrin, the entire state apparatus.

Nikolai Bukharin called them a lever for reforming the apparatus, and this appropriate metaphor reminds us of Lenin’s famous paraphrase of Archimedes’s lever in What Is to Be Done? (“Give us an organization of revolutionaries, and we shall overturn Russia!”). In his last articles, Lenin retreats to his dream of inspiring “professional revolutionaries” whose total dedication and heroic leadership abilities will bring about miracles.

Preventing a Schism

“Our Central Committee has become a strictly centralized and highly authoritative group, but the work of this group has not been placed in conditions that correspond to this authority.” While many of Lenin’s remarks on this score bear on improvement of administrative routine, we shall focus on his remarks with broader political import. The most important consideration is the prevention of a schism.

The fear of a schism and the insistence on unity is probably the aspect of Bolshevik mentality that is hardest for Americans to understand. The Bolsheviks felt deeply that in a hostile world, the survival of the revolution depended on their own unity and the disunity of their opponents.

Lenin discusses the possibility of a schism at two levels: among the individuals of the top leadership and at the more fundamental level of the workers and the peasants.

Lenin did not believe there was much chance of a peasant-worker split in and of itself. After noting the possibility of a lack of basic understanding between the classes, Lenin comments that “this is too much [a matter of a] remote future and too unbelievable an occurrence for me [even] to talk about.” Nor does the danger of a split in the top leadership result from any fear that his colleagues might underestimate the worker-peasant alliance; he did not fear any other potential serious policy differences.

The danger that worried him was rather that a strictly accidental and personal split among the top leaders would lead to a loss of party authority and thus to failure in the battle for the loyalty of the peasant. Preventing a schism in the top leadership is also important because no one person can combine all the different qualities needed in a leader.

Despite his concern about a split in the leadership, Lenin does not mention factionalism, perhaps because he no longer saw factionalism as a threat, as he had in 1921. Another possibility is that Lenin saw factionalism arising from disputes among the elite rather than from rank-and-file pressures.

In any event, Lenin’s scheme for enlisting the best and brightest workers was also designed to strengthen party unity. Those enlisted would reduce the chance of a personal schism by improving the work routines of the top leadership.

They will also provide the leadership with a “tie to the masses,” since these new recruits would gain authority from their closeness to “the highest party institution [the Central Committee] and from their equal standing with those who direct the party and through it the entire state apparatus.” None of this seems to be a call for democratic pressure to limit top party leaders’ freedom of action — on the contrary, the aim is to increase the effectiveness of what Lenin called in his last published sentence the “highly authoritative party elite.”

Cultural Revolution

In his early polemics with the Narodniki (Populists), Lenin had argued that capitalism was necessary to shake Russia out of its “Asiatic” sleepiness. At the end of his life, he still felt that, although capitalism itself was no longer necessary, this cultural task remained on the agenda. “Proletarian culture” was impossible without the cultural revolution that capitalism had wrought elsewhere.

Lenin’s concern was prompted by his Marxist conscience that told him (in the person of Nikolai Sukhanov and other socialist critics) that a socialist revolution was not possible without the material base created by capitalism and its accompanying cultural attitudes. Another source of concern was the practical problem of dealing with the peasantry.

Both concerns presented the same challenges: how to get present-day Russia to the position that a Western country would enjoy the day after the revolution; how to find an enlistment mechanism that would transform the peasants’ outlook so that they could participate in the building of socialism.

Lenin’s main response to these cultural concerns was the cooperatives, although shefstvo and the village schoolteachers can be seen as political equivalents. Lenin was not particularly interested in the economic advantages of the cooperatives; for him they were an answer to socialist criticism based on Russia’s lack of culture. The cooperatives would act as the functional equivalent of capitalism and transform the Russian peasant who at present had not arrived even at the level of a “cultured huckster.”

Lenin did not see the cooperatives as an extension of the NEP, but rather as a tool for overcoming the NEP:

Under NEP we made a concession to the peasant as a merchant and to the principle of private trade; precisely from this (contrary to what is thought) flows the gigantic significance of the cooperatives . . . We went too far, going over to NEP, not because we attached too much importance to the principle of free production and trade — we went too far because we forgot to think about the cooperatives.

In other words, even though allowing private trade was a necessary concession, the Bolsheviks must remember that they have to transform the peasants so that they no longer require such a concession.

Unknown Territory

To understand the nature of Lenin’s testament, we must start with some of the things that are not in the final writings. No new definition of socialism can be found there. Today, one of the most popular phrases from the testament is “we are compelled to admit a radical change of our whole point of view on socialism.” Lenin immediately makes it clear, however, that he is referring to the shift from the task of taking power over to the task of peacefully constructing socialism and would have been seriously offended by claims that he had moved beyond Karl Marx’s definition of socialism.

The testament contains no critique of war communism. The very concept is missing: Lenin continually refers to the five years since the revolution as a unit, with an occasional mention of the fact that intervention and hunger slowed down the pace of socialist construction. The source of all evils is the prerevolutionary past and the petit-bourgeois environment. The civil war is not a corrupter of Bolshevism but a source of inspiring examples.

The testament contains no deeper, wider vision of the NEP. Lenin defends the NEP on the basis of the need for economic recovery and as a justifiable concession to the peasants’ backward outlook, but otherwise his attitude seems negative. The NEP is associated with bureaucratism, a low level of economic productivity, “nepmen,” and the Brest retreat.

The political testament is not a critique of Stalinism avant la lettre. Despite Lenin’s anger at Stalin personally, the testament contains no warning against coercive assaults on the peasantry or murderous purges of the party, simply because it never occurred to Lenin that such things were possible. He never hints at a rethinking of the party’s role. Lenin saw the top party institutions as effective and authoritative, and he wanted to ensure that they became more so.

While these remarks may seem to remove much of the drama of Lenin’s final testament, they increase its significance as an expression of Lenin’s basic outlook. One reason for this significance is the lack of tight editorial control that allows the tensions inherent in Lenin’s outlook to surface directly. These tensions sometimes look like contradictions, but they reflect the real conflicts of a revolutionary statesman entering unknown territory.

Shame and Pride

One such tension is the relation between “West” and “East.” Sometimes the West is a symbol of civilization, up-to-date science, and progress, as opposed to the sleepy, backward, “uncultured” East; in other places the West is oppressive, stodgy, and malevolent, while the East is a revolutionary giant just beginning to feel its strength.

The attitude toward bourgeois culture and bourgeois specialists reveals a similar ambivalence. Lenin wants his readers both to look up to the specialists as sources of knowledge and as teachers and to look down on them as potential saboteurs. Related to this attitude is reliance on the virtue of the workers combined with suspicions about their lack of culture.

Another tension is that between patience and impatience — between careful self-discipline and revolutionary daring. Lenin expressed this tension directly in his formula about combining revolutionary enthusiasm with the ability to be an efficient trader. It can also be seen in the split between the attention given to improvement of administrative routine vs. the denunciation of “bureaucratism” — between the calls for patience vs. the sneers at timidity before established routine.

As with the bourgeois specialists, Lenin calls for a psychologically difficult attitude of contempt toward a source of necessary discipline. A tension between the desire for centralization and the desire for mass participation leads to the instability of the scheme to enlist workers: Sometimes election is stressed, sometimes appointment — sometimes an unspoiled nature is emphasized, other times professional expertise is paramount.

A final, and perhaps basic, tension is between shame and pride in Russia — shame over its backwardness and tsarist past, pride in its people and revolutionary future:

We are speaking of the half-asiatic lack of culture, from which we have not yet extricated ourselves, and from which we cannot extricate ourselves without strenuous effort — although we now have every opportunity to do so, because nowhere are the masses of the people so interested in real culture as they are in our country; nowhere are the problems of this culture tackled so thoroughly and consistently as they are in our country; in no other country is state power in the hands of the working class which, in its mass, is fully aware of the deficiencies, I shall not say of its culture, but of its literacy; nowhere is the working class so ready to make, and nowhere is it actually making, such sacrifices to improve its position in this respect as in our country.