The formation of the Soviet Union was predicated on violence and class conflict. From Lenin’s return to Petrograd to Stalin’s death, the first few decades of the USSR followed a simple course: power was slowly acquired and consolidated by the revolution’s leaders. The Bolsheviks started with a loose coalition of 25,000 members, 3,000 of which were active in Petrograd. How did such a small coalition of Bolsheviks come to take over the country and establish a world superpower that could rival the United States? The Bolsheviks could only find success through the usage of a lean, amorphous, revolutionary machine. Through persuasion, forced coercion, and false promises, the Bolsheviks pushed their way forward from a lowly coalition of Marxists to the head of Russia and the eventual USSR. Both Lenin and Stalin were willing to do anything to reach their ultimate end goal of a workers’ paradise. They were willing to compromise on ideology and process in order to get there. In their eyes, pragmatism and pivoting were necessary to find success. As the goal posts of what success would look like changed over time, Lenin and Stalin slowly changed their own ideological beliefs, bringing the rest of the party in line with them.
Stalinism is not fundamentally different than Leninism. Both wanted to establish a socialist republic in Russia, hoping to create a global proletariat revolution. The difference lies in the decisions they made on how to reach that goal, and the time table to do so. The incurrence of violence began under Lenin’s tenure as the Bolshevik leader. Stalin’s cooptation and consolidation of power was the inevitable conclusion to the story that Lenin began. While Stalin caused significantly more devastation and catastrophe on the Soviet population, most of the mechanisms he deployed to change society were created and used by Lenin. Both men were perceived as pragmatists by their parties. This pragmatism was rooted in the fact that they were willing to make harsh concessions and compromise on their beliefs if they thought it would eventually get the state where it needed to be. When a peaceful, democratic path to control soured for Lenin, he resorted to violence and the dissolution of the Constituent Assembly after losing to the Kadets and the Socialist Revolutionary party in the assembly elections of 1917.
Some historians believe that the Civil War created the culture of violence in the Bolshevik party, but Lenin’s use of force predates the conflict. While Stalin stood with Bukharin in support of the peasantry, once he had solidified his position in party leadership, he pivoted away from Bukharin’s class collaboration appeal and ousted him. Stalin’s next act was to begin the liquidation of the kulak class.
Different social groups were used simply to gain power by the Bolsheviks. Their ideology had always been tied to the urban worker and communism. Loose coalitions were made, and alliances were severed when they were no longer needed. Stalin and Lenin both resorted to violence to achieve their dreams. This paper shows how Lenin used violence to consolidate power. By illustrating Lenin’s use of force, we can show how Stalin’s violent terrors and purges were not novel. It will also show that both men were willing to change what they thought was the ultimate goal. Essentially, Leninism changed over time just as Stalinism did. The real continuation between the two leaders would be the institutions, the party, institutionalized violence and repression.
The second topic of discussion will be the system of violence that the Bolsheviks created and used. This section will discuss how Lenin began using violence during the October Revolution all the way through to his death. In the power vacuum created after his death, Stalin outmanuevered his opponents and established himself as leader by tying his ideology to that of Lenin’s. Consolidating power into the hands of the Secretary General, Stalin used the machines of oppression that Lenin had helped build to further solidify his leadership. The competition between party members and outside forces shaped the conflict for power, permitting Stalin’s chokehold on the Communist party. The trend began with Lenin and continued through to Stalin. Thus, Stalin’s terror and use of force was not an aberration of Lenin’s beliefs. It was the natural evolution of Leninism.
Lenin returned to Petrograd in April of 1917, immediately following the February Revolution. The Workers’ Soviets had already arisen during this time, and had begun amassing a great deal of support in the cities. The Provisional Government was seen as a good intermediary system to run the country until a Constituent Assembly could be created and elections held. The main problem with this, for Lenin, was that the Provisional Government lacked Bolshevik leadership and majority representation. The Soviets were not entirely Bolshevik institutions, but their members were slowly goaded over and Bolsheviks cemented their power within the systems, particularly in the Petrograd Soviet. Before Lenin arrived, Stalin and Trotsky ran the Petrograd Soviet. Order №1 from Trotsky and the council changed the power dynamic in the city and eventually the country. The Petrograd Soviet called for soldiers to create their own Soviet systems, which would have representation of membership and allow for soldiers to make decisions together, which was extremely popular amongst the demoralized military. Additionally, Trotsky’s Order №1 called for the soldiers to not follow an order from the Provisional Government if it conflicted with an order from the Petrograd Soviet. In their first powerful act, the Bolsheviks had courted the military and loyalties were tested.
Both Lenin and Trotsky believed in the concept of permanent, sustained revolution. They realized that the Soviet state would need help skipping the capitalist era of history. By giving the rest of the world an ideal Soviet republic, Lenin believed that Russia’s revolution would start a cascade of other proletariat revolutions across the world. With this belief in mind, Lenin focused single-mindedly on making his system work in Russia. If that could be done, then direct aid from new found revolutionary supporters and converted Western nations could buoy the Soviets and help grow the working class. Lenin wrote in What is to be Done? about an ideal image of a centralized, disciplined party of underground, professional revolutionaries. If these professional revolutionaries could make Russian communism work, they could change the world in Marxist fashion. Above all else, though, they had to make it work. Lenin wrote himself a blank check on the means of change to justify his ends.
The Bolsheviks supported nationalizing the land across Russia, ending the war, giving the workers ownership of fruits of their own labor, and building a peasantry class consciousness that could collaborate with the workers. Lenin’s ideals could be seen as compromising of Marxist ideology, as he believed that communism was possible without needing capitalism as a prerequisite. Lenin was also aware that the true power should be derived from the workers, not the peasantry. The compromise here was to allow the peasants to join the Bolshevik coalition so they could win power in the upcoming Constituent Assembly elections. The peasants made up the bulk of the military forces, so Lenin believed that appeasing them through land usage rights and ending the war would cement the peasantry’s support of the Bolsheviks. He was partially right.
The Red Guard fought against the Provisional Government’s forces that attempted to censure newspapers throughout Petrograd in what would kickstart the October Revolution. The Petrograd Soviet supported arming a militia in order to establish an armed Bolshevik wing. With the loyalty of the militant peasantry, the Red Guard and the grander Bolshevik party found great success in stopping the Provisional Governments forces. The Red Guard overtook the Winter Palace and deposed the Provisional Government. This led to a cascade of new energy for elections, and Lenin endorsed elections for a new, representative Constituent Assembly. He believed the Bolsheviks had a great chance of legitimizing their claim to power through national elections. By this point, the various Soviets across the country under the direction of Lenin and his supporters, had begun censoring newspapers and media that reflected poorly on the Soviets. Lenin realized the importance of narrative. Censorship could buy him support and alienate would be opponents from gaining the spotlight or from opposing the Bolshevik will. Between the support of the militant Red Guard and the peasantry through the opposition of the war and by land ownership reform, the capturing of the Winter Palace in the October Revolution, and control of their own media, Lenin believed he could win popular support across the country.
They did not have the votes. The Bolsheviks barely made up a quarter of the representatives in the Constituent Assembly. For fear of losing his revolution, Lenin resorted to violence. The newly formed Constituent Assembly was dissolved after one session by Lenin and the Red Guard. Ten demonstrators in support of the elected assembly were shot in a demonstration outside of the legislature, and Lenin created the Cheka. “All power to the Soviets!” was Lenin’s official position. Claiming that the elections were continuations of bourgeois capitalism and not reflective of the will of the people, pro-Lenin forces dissolved the Assembly and reverted power to the Bolsheviks. This is a greater reflection of Lenin’s ability to pivot and change tactics to achieve his desired outcome. Lenin was a fierce champion of the Constituent Assembly until he lost. At that point, he decried the entire system and seized power, as it was ripe for the taking.
With the outbreak of civil war, Lenin was no-longer a proponent of peaceful solutions. “It is no secret that every revolutionary movement is invariably accompanied by chaos, destruction, and disorder. Bourgeois society involves war and slaughter too, and it is this which has so accentuated the conflict between the Constituent Assembly and the soviets,” said Lenin, in a speech to the Soviet. The Red Army and the Cheka created an entire system of intelligence through which to monitor communications amongst citizens and cover the “mood” of the people. These reports were used to hone in on opposition within the cities, and would provide the basis for terror campaigns. Mail was intercepted and read, and a primitive Orwellian state of surveillance was created in Russia. To win the war, the party converted from an organization of radical, ideological revolutionaries into one where loyalty and discipline was necessary. By the end of the violent and bloody war, the Leninists were militaristic and driven by hierarchical organization. Power was being consolidated to the top, specifically in the hands of Lenin and Trotsky. The economy became centrally planned under Trotsky’s war communism. Food shortages led to requisitions of produce and grains by the military from the peasant class. If peasants could not provide any more, they could be interned in early Gulag’s or summarily executed. Violence was used to repress the peasant class by the Red Army.
The Red Army had won. While Lenin thought his revolution would end quickly and the proletariat would take control of the means of production and soviets would run the country, it quickly became apparent that the complexity of the problem meant that a guiding hand was necessary. Compromising on his beliefs, Lenin pivoted to strengthening the state apparatus instead of weakening it. Along with the new powerful Red Army, systems of censorship, surveillance capabilities, and a more powerful Cheka, Lenin had created a powerful counterrevolutionary toolbox. However, revolutions were not occurring across the world like Lenin and Trotsky had hoped. The Soviet economy was collapsing and production of food and industrial goods had collapsed during the civil war. To save the economy, the pragmatic Lenin stepped back from Trotsky’s centralized war communism system. Through the New Economic Policy (NEP), Lenin created liberal market reform and permitted small-scale trade to incentivize economic growth. It worked, and a rich class of peasants named kulaks emerged.
To consolidate power and limit competition of ideology in the lead up to the civil war and throughout the conflict, Lenin ordered opponents exiled or removed. In correspondence with Stalin, Lenin can be seen to have directly mandated the forced removal or execution of the opposition. During the Kronstadt Rebellion, Lenin ordered the Red Army to crush the naval yard’s members and ordered them punished for opposing the Bolsheviks. If Lenin had actually ever been opposed to violence, it is unknown. But a difficult civil war did not shape his opinions on its use. Lenin had ordered the use of military forces before the war’s outbreak. He created a military police system that was designed to crush dissidents, typically in violent fashion.
The system that Lenin created to ensure his revolution would be successful was presupposed to violence. The tools and apparatus of state oppression had been created, and the newly strengthened militant party and the Red Army is further testament to that. Stalin may have taken the violence to an extreme, but he borrowed Lenin’s playbook and used the tools he created to crackdown on any opposition to his rule. Stalin believed in the nationalization of land to be formed as collectivist farms. Stalin believed in industrializing the nation from within, whereas Lenin believed foreign aid would be necessary. Lenin wanted the state dissolved, but realized it was necessary to reach the goal of a worker’s utopia. Stalin believed the same, hoping a top-down approach would establish socialism in one country and give the rest of the world a powerful model to follow. Both men wanted the same thing for their society. Stalin simply used the tools in front of him without remorse. The power of the party, military, surveillance, and secret police all found their origins in Lenin’s consolidation of power. To call Stalin’s use of force and terror completely different that Lenin’s is ignoring the history in front of us.