The Complete Noob’s Guide to the Left Pt. 3: Leninism vs. Stalinism vs. Trotskyism

The date was December 28th, 1922. A group of over 2,000 delegates from all over the former Tsarist empire of Russia gathered in Moscow to consolidate the new socialist republic they had fought so hard for over the last five years. Two days later, from the stage of Bolshoi Theatre, they presented to the Russian people the Treaty on the Creation of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Thus began the first true socialist nation in the history of the world.

But the country’s birth was not without strong labor pains. Indeed, the three biggest names associated with the advent of the Soviet Union-Vladimir Lenin, Joseph Stalin, and Leon Trotsky- all had very different ideas for structuring the new government and how best to continue the worldwide socialist uprising they started. In this entry of “The Complete Noob’s Guide to the Left,” we’ll examine the philosophies of these three men to see how the future of socialism may have progressed had either one may have done things differently, as well as how Russia fared when Stalin became the victor.

Part 1: Lenin vs. Stalin
Lenin and Stalin photographed by Lenin’s sister Maria at Gorky Park in September of 1922

Lenin had already been in poor health for about a year before the December 30th declaration. He had been showing signs of hyperacusis, insomnia, and headaches that were so bad that he tried to get his wife and sister to purchase potassium cyanide so he could kill himself. To this day, no one is exactly sure what was wrong with him; theories include neurasthenia, cerebral atherosclerosis, and even syphilis.

In any case, Lenin’s poor health worsened significantly when he suffered a stroke in May of 1922. He had largely recovered by July but then suffered another stroke in December. It has been reported that this second stroke was caused by an argument with secret police chief and Stalin loyalist Feliks Dzerzhinsky over a crackdown in the Caucasus region. Another Stalin loyalist, Sergo Ordzhonikidze, had been sent into Stalin’s homeland of Georgia to quell protest movements against the “autonomization model” that Stalin advocated for. Lenin was angry that Dzerzhinsky had exonerated Ordzhonikidze for any wrongdoing, but the stroke left him unable to do anything about it.

Perhaps I should explain what this “autonomization model” is. Autonomization was Stalin’s proposed solution to the problem of what relationship the former states of the Russian Empire would have with the Bolshevik ruling class in Moscow. He offered to incorporate the Russian regional republics into the new Soviet Federation, with the ethnic minorities of each respective region allowed autonomy within the boundaries of Soviet law. Many republics protested this approach, especially Ukraine, Belarus, and the Caucasian states of Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Armenia.

Lenin sided with the regional republics, arguing that Stalin was pursuing an imperialistic goal. Remember that Lenin’s principal innovation in Marxist thought was combatting the new capitalist model of imperialism, which Marx had failed to foresee. He was worried that autonomization would undermine the Soviet Union’s credibility as the vanguard of the worldwide socialist revolution. The regional republics’ right to self-rule must be preserved, he argued.

Stalin and Lenin managed to reach a compromise before Lenin’s second stroke. Stalin, aware of how powerful Lenin still was within the Bolshevik Party system, agreed to Lenin’s terms, allowing the new socialist republic to come into being as the USSR on December 30th. After the second stroke, however, Stalin quickly set about limiting Lenin’s activities under the pretense of not exacerbating Lenin’s poor health.

But Lenin wasn’t finished with Stalin. He wrote letters protesting against Stalin’s power grabs throughout 1923, even after suffering a third stroke in March. His anti-Stalin complaints became especially vociferous after Stalin insulted his wife, Nadezhda Krupskaya, when she refused to let him see an ailing Lenin in his bedroom.

The biggest one was “Lenin’s Testament,” which he finished in January of that year, which notably argued for the removal of Stalin from the position of general secretary in favor of Leon Trotsky. He also argued that the centralization of the new socialist government functions should be limited solely to defense and international relations to keep thuggish personalities like Stalin from taking advantage.

Sadly, after Lenin finally passed away on January 21st, 1924, at the age of 53, Stalin managed to persuade the other party leaders to ignore these suggestions. Of course, one must wonder what would have become of the Soviet Union if Trotsky had taken power.

Part 2: Stalin vs. Trotsky

I think the best way I’ve heard to explain the differences in Leninism, Stalinism, and Trotskyism comes from this Quora article by historian Cameron Greene: Stalinism was the conservative side of Bolshevism, Leninism the moderate/centrist side, and Trotskyism the radical side.

Stalin advocated the “socialism in one country” policy, which argued that Russia should not focus on leading socialist revolutions in other countries until it has perfected socialism in the Russian state. He also pursued rapid industrialization and collectivization of agriculture, intensification of class conflict (especially with kulaks or property-owning peasants), a one-party totalitarian police state to crush counter-revolutionary movements, and subordination of socialist movements across the globe to the interests of the Soviet vanguard. Stalin was also willing to seek the advice of private enterprises like the Ford Motor Company to help the Soviet Union get its state-owned enterprises off the ground.

On the other hand, Trotsky argued for a global socialist revolution in multiple countries to overwhelm the international capitalist order more quickly. He also argued that the bureaucratic police state that Stalin was developing was antithetical to the working class self-determination and mass democracy that Marx advocated for. He was also a harsh critic of Stalin’s willingness to cooperate with capitalists to help jump-start Soviet industrialization, as he was determined not to negotiate with capitalist nations.

Unsurprisingly, Stalin did not take kindly to this criticism. After Lenin’s death, Stalin and the Politburo gradually stripped Trotsky of his government positions until he was formally exiled from the Soviet Union in February 1929. He had been living in Alma-Ata (now Almaty, Kazakhstan) for a year at that point. He spent the rest of his life dodging assassination attempts as he traveled the world railing against Stalin’s betrayal of the socialist revolution, even forming the Fourth International in France in 1938. Stalin’s assassins finally caught up with him two years later. Trotsky died at the age of 60 on August 21st, 1940, in Mexico City from brain injuries caused by the blunt end of an ice ax wielded by Ramon Mercader.

Personal Thoughts

It is tempting to argue that the Soviet Union would have been a true worker’s paradise if Trotsky had come to power instead of Stalin. Let’s face it: even if his rapid industrialization did bring Russia into the modern era, Stalin was a terrible ruler by any standard. While there is still debate over whether or not the great famines of 1930-33 (the Ukrainian Holodomor being by far the most infamous) were deliberately engineered by Stalin or whether it was an unintended side effect of rapid collectivization, there is no question that it is a large black stain on his character. The dekulakization program, which took place around the same time and may have led to over half a million deaths, is a lot less excusable, as is the Great Purge of Stalin’s political enemies in 1937, which some estimate killed over a million. His religious persecutions and the roughly 1.6 million who died in the gulags should also not be dismissed.

That being said, however, there isn’t much reason to believe that Trotsky would have been any less of a dictator. Okay, that is kind of a lie. He did believe that the Soviet Union should be more of a union of worker’s councils, which does appeal to my personal preference for anarcho-communism (even if all the communes would still have been required to report to Moscow). However, as the YouTube channel Alternate History Hub explains in their video “What If Stalin Never Came to Power,” Trotsky wasn’t any less bloodthirsty than Stalin. Indeed, Stalin’s rapid industrialization ideas in his Five-Year Plans were actually stolen from Trotsky. The only difference was that Trotsky wanted to share the profits with all Russian citizens, not just a privileged few. There is no reason to believe that a Trotskyist Russia would have avoided the famines and purges that plagued Stalin’s Russia.

In addition, Trotsky would have had a whole nation at his disposal to pursue his goal of a worldwide socialist revolution. Indeed, given that Trotsky was of Jewish heritage, it is highly likely that Trotsky would have been a lot tougher on Nazi Germany than Stalin was. Of course, this could have backfired on the Soviets, as this might have led to fascists being seen as martyrs to the anti-communist cause and leading to the Soviet Union being the main Allied antagonist of World War II instead of the Axis Powers. Then again, it may also have led to socialism gaining a solid foothold in many more countries than just Cuba, Vietnam, and others. Or maybe I’m just being too optimistic.

Some fellow socialists have gone further, arguing that Bolshevism itself was its own worst enemy, that Soviet Russia was doomed to an oppressive dictatorship no matter which leader it ultimately chose. For instance, the October 1973 issue of The Socialist Standard (the official magazine of the Socialist Party of Great Britain) includes an article titled “Trotskyism, Stalinism: What’s the Difference,” where the author argues that Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, and all of the other Bolsheviks were operating off a grievous misinterpretation of Marx. He contrasts Lenin’s view that “on its own, the working class cannot go beyond the level of trade union consciousness” with Marx and Engel’s view that “the proletarian movement is the self-conscious, independent movement of the immense majority.” He also points to how Trotsky handled the Kronstadt rebellion as proof that he was no better than Stalin.

The Kronstadt rebellion was one of the most prominent left-wing uprisings against the Bolsheviks. Thousands of Soviet sailors, soldiers, and civilians seized control of the port city on the island of Kotlin near St. Petersburg for sixteen days in March of 1921. The rebels were disillusioned by the direction of the Bolshevik government. They demanded more civil rights and economic freedom for the working class, that more libertarian socialist groups receive government representation, and that the bureaucratic systems implemented by the Bolsheviks be dismantled. The Bolshevik party leaders, Trotsky included, dismissed their rebellion as a capitalist false flag and invaded the island on March 18th, slaughtering thousands. This move was widely criticized even by contemporary leftists, perhaps most notably Emma Goldman in her essay “Trotsky Protests Too Much.”

In the end, if you ask my opinion, the Bolsheviks ended up falling prey to the same trap that the Founding Fathers of the United States fell into when they created the United States; they were not confident enough in the decision-making capabilities of the working class to allow them to exercise true democracy. True, the Bolsheviks had a leg up on the Founders in that half of them weren’t slave owners, but it’s hard for me to argue that they were any more altruistic than the Founders in the end, given how little tolerance they gave towards leftist ideologies that differed from their own.

However, that leads me to think about the other factions of the Russian socialist movement. Indeed, the Bolsheviks were only one of three main factions in the Russian revolution. So join me on the next episode, where I compare and contrast the Bolsheviks with the Mensheviks and the Socialist-Revolutionaries. See you then!

The Complete Noob’s Guide to the Left #2: Marxism-Leninism

Marxism-Leninism was by far the most widespread strain of socialist thought to emerge in the 20th century. It was the form of government that the Soviet Union took after the death of Vladimir Lenin, as Josef Stalin sought to combine Lenin’s philosophy with that of Karl Marx. The results were wildly successful for a time; at its height in the early to mid-1980s, thirty countries followed Marxist-Leninist principles when setting up their socialist governments. But today, only four are still considered bona fide Marxist-Leninist states: Vietnam, Laos, Cuba, and China. But did these states fail on their own merits, like capitalist propaganda would have us believe? Or did capitalism end up strangling the baby in its crib to stop the working class from seeing a better way?

General Beliefs

Before we answer those questions, we must first examine what Marxist-Leninists actually believe. The main difference between Marx and Lenin was that Lenin thought that Marx had been mistaken when he predicted that the working class would achieve solidarity as poverty got worse and more jobs were replaced by machines. Lenin instead argued that by outsourcing hard labor to overseas colonies during the age of imperialism, the capitalist ruling class had managed to instill workers with a false sense of solidarity with the bourgeoisie. They did this mainly by providing the workers with enough benefits to satisfy them and forestall a populist uprising.

Lenin argued that the solution to this problem was to form a political party composed of intellectuals to show the misguided working class that their bourgeois solidarity is wasted on rich people who don’t care about them. With this vanguard party in place, a revolution would overthrow the old bourgeois class and be ruled under a dictatorship of the proletariat, which Marx predicted in his original writings. Lenin interpreted this “dictatorship of the proletariat” as a one-party political system that would determine what was good for the workers and establish a strong law enforcement arm to suppress counterrevolutionaries (something that many other socialist thinkers disagreed with; more on that later).

With all of this in place, the path to the classless, stateless society that Marx originally dreamed of would eventually be realized as the rest of the world saw how well the citizens of the Soviet Union were doing under the newer, better communist regime. But sadly, as history has demonstrated, capitalism doesn’t like competition as much as it claims it does.

History and Principle Figures

Russia did indeed have its socialist revolution in October of 1917 that established the very first non-capitalist nation in the modern-day. Some sources, like the Libertarian Socialist Wiki, have divided the subsequent history of Marxism-Leninism into six phases.

Phase One starts with the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 and ends with the invasion of the USSR by Nazi Germany in 1941. This period saw the establishment of the Soviet Union as a formal state in 1922, Josef Stalin coming to power in 1924 after Lenin’s untimely death, Mongolia becoming a socialist republic the same year, and Stalin pursuing a policy of isolationism as he pursued independent industrial development.

Phase Two lasted from 1941 to 1959. This period saw the Allied Powers’ defeat of Nazi Germany and the Japanese Empire with significant help from the Soviet Union and the beginning of the Cold War between the USSR and the United States. This period also saw the first big wave of new socialist republics as the USSR sought to spread its foreign influence. Yugoslavia was the first to join in 1943, followed by Poland (1945); Albania and Bulgaria (1946); Romania (1947); Czechslovakia (1948); East Germany, Hungary, and China (1949); North Korea (1950); and Cuba (1959). Stalin died in 1954, and his successor, Nikita Krushchev, pursued a policy of de-Stalinization. Meanwhile, the capitalist countries begin covert military operations to destabilize emerging communist governments like those in Iran (1953) and Guatemala (1954).

Phase Three lasted from 1960 to 1973 and saw the creation of several Marxist-Leninist organizations that failed to seize power in their home countries. Examples include the Naxalite movement in India, the Red Army Faction in West Germany, and the Japanese Red Army. Others successfully achieved socialism, like Yemen in 1967 and Congo and Somalia in 1969. It also saw tensions between the US and Soviet Union reach a fever pitch during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. Meanwhile, tensions between the USSR and China led to the Sino-Soviet Split, as Mao Zedong accused Nikita Krushchev’s policies of de-Stalinization and attempts at peaceful coexistence with the West as a betrayal of Marxist principles. Even so, Mao himself eventually established friendly relations with the US after Nixon’s famous visit in 1972. During this period, the US would also pursue much more hostile relations with other Marxist-Leninist nations, most infamously with its toppling of Salvador Allende’s government in Chile in 1973 and the Vietnam War (1964-1975).

Phase Four lasted from 1974 to 1988 and saw the second big wave of states joining the Marxist-Leninist cause. These included Ethiopia in 1974; Benin, Angola, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, and Mozambique in 1975; Afghanistan in 1978; Nicaragua and Grenada in 1979; and Burkina Faso in 1983. Indeed, one might call this the golden age of Marxism-Leninism, as not only did the philosophy hold sway over 30 nation-states at this time, but revolutionaries were conducting insurrections against their capitalist regimes all over the globe, albeit with little success. Meanwhile, the US continued its fight against the rise of communism. First, it seized upon the assassination of socialist prime minister Maurice Bishop to lead an invasion that toppled Grenada’s Marxist-Leninist government in 1983. Then it joined France, Libya, Israel, and several other nations in assassinating Burkina Faso’s Thomas Sankara in 1987. This period also saw American president Ronald Reagan become involved in the Iran-Contra affair, in which he was outed as using money from illegal arms sales in Iran to fund the Contra movement to oust the Communist government of Nicaragua.

Phase Five, lasting from 1989 to 1992, was when the bottom dropped out of the old communist regimes, as the contradictions inherent in the centralized economies of places like the Soviet Union caused them to start falling apart, partly thanks to Mikael Gorbachev’s policies of perestroika and glasnost. The age of neoliberalism formally codified itself as authoritarian governments, communist or otherwise, were replaced by capitalist representative democracies. Only five countries still operated on Marxist-Leninist principles when it was all over; China, Vietnam, Laos, North Korea, and Cuba.

Phase Six, which started in 1993 and continues today, sees the remaining five socialist governments struggling to adapt to the neoliberal era. Vietnam, Laos, and Cuba remain steadfastly Marxist-Leninist despite often overbearing international pressure. Meanwhile, China has adopted more and more capitalist elements as the years have gone by, while North Korea devolved into an authoritarian hellscape. What major socialist movements are left have mostly turned to social democracy or libertarian socialism (like the Zapatista movement in Chiapas, Mexico, or the PKK and Rojava movement in Turkey, Iraq, and Syria).

Personal Thoughts

I have rather complex feelings about the Marxist-Leninists. On the one hand, Marxism-Leninism has a lot to answer for in terms of some of their actions, some of which might even rise to human rights violations. Indeed, the millions of deaths that occurred under events like the Holodomor in Stalinist Russia, the great famines that happened under Mao Zedong’s watch in China, and the millions of people murdered by Pol Pot’s regime in Cambodia could make a strong case that trying to centralize the entire economy under government control never works.

Even many contemporary leftists had a lot of negative things to say about how Lenin and co. were handling things in Russia. For example, Polish communist Rosa Luxemburg heavily criticized Lenin’s idea of a vanguard, which she thought would lead to a one-party totalitarian state (something that would prove all too true once Stalin took power). My personal political hero, Pyotr Kropotkin, also criticized the Marxist-Leninists as being too centralized and authoritarian. The great American anarchist Emma Goldman, deported to Russia for her radical views, even wrote a two-volume book entitled My Disillusionment in Russia, in which she excoriated the Marxist-Leninists for their suppression of independent voices (something that was brilliantly depicted in the 1981 film Reds during her argument with John Reed (see my review of that film here)).

However, as my literacy of the history and philosophy of the political left has increased, I’ve also come to realize two things. The first is that, in many cases, the supposed crimes of the Marxist-Leninist regimes have often been grossly exaggerated or even outright fabricated by capitalist propagandists. Much capitalist propaganda would have us believe that all communist nations were Stalinist or Maoist hellholes where everyone was crushed under famine and economic stagnation and anyone who dared to speak out about it was deported to a life of hard labor in the gulags. Of course, this ignores the fact that the gulags were discontinued under Krushchev’s administration as part of his de-Stalinization policies. It also ignores the fact that the Soviet Union became an industrial superpower that vastly increased living standards. Many egalitarian achievements, in the form of social programs for education, housing, health, and jobs, helped lift up much of the population.

This is your country on socialism, and this is your country on capitalism. Any questions?

Speaking of which, that leads me to the second thing I’ve realized: that capitalism is far deadlier than communism could ever hope to be. Let’s say we take 1997’s The Black Book of Communism at its word and assume that communism has indeed killed 94 million people in the 100+ years since the Bolshevik Revolution. That doesn’t change the fact that capitalism kills just as many, if not more, people every five years!

Of course, that’s not including all the atrocities that capitalism wrought on the world during the age of imperialism. Let’s go through some of these atrocities one by one and see how long it takes to surpass The Black Book’s death toll, shall we?

  • The Atlantic slave trade is estimated to have directly killed around 17 million, according to the United Nations, although many estimates place the death toll much higher.
  • Colonial negligence by the British resulted in the Irish Potato Famine of 1845-1852, which some have estimated killed as many as 1.5 million.
  • The colonization of North America in the wake of Christopher Columbus’ arrival lead to genocide of the Indigenous population, resulting in anywhere from 50 to 100 million deaths.
  • King Leopold II of Belgium’s infamously brutal treatment of rubber laborers in the Congo Free State between 1885 and 1908 resulted in the deaths of 15 million, according to the highest estimates.
  • Adolf Hitler’s Holocaust against the Jews, the Romani, the homosexuals, the disabled, and several other groups (resulting in over six million deaths) is a direct legacy of the systems of racism created by capitalists to justify the Atlantic slave trade.
  • One direct rebuttal of The Black Book by noted leftist philospher Noam Chomsky noted how deaths from hunger in India typically exceeded 4 million deaths even in non-famine years, in contrast to the 15-55 million figure death toll often applied to China’s Great Famine of 1959-1961.

Of course, that doesn’t cover nearly all the people killed by capitalism and all the genocides, wars, and just plain negligent actions that it propagates, but the point still stands. In all, I think the last paragraph of this article from the eco-socialist journal Capitalism Nature Socialism puts it best:

Leftists who object to communism will hardly put an even infinitesimal dent on the capitalist killing machine by reproducing anti-communist propaganda. It only helps intensify the threat of burgeoning anti-communist legislation and fascist street actions against the left as a whole… Let us then consciously reorganize and struggle for economically tenable classless egalitarian ends before capitalists obliterate most of humanity and other beings with another world conflagration or simply conducting their regular buisness.

Engel-Di Mauro, Salvatore; et al. (4 May 2021). “Anti-Communism and the Hundreds of Millions of Victims of Capitalism”Capitalism Nature Socialism. Routledge. 32 (1): 1–17.

Indeed, from what I’ve gathered, it seems that the ultimate end goal of Marxist-Leninists and anarcho-communists is ultimately the same: a classless, stateless society devoid of any and all forms of coercive power. The former just disagree that such a society can be achieved without some form of centralized government, no matter the risk of it turning just as authoritarian and repressive as the capitalist society it is trying to replace.

Still, though, Vietnam and Cuba seem to have managed to achieve stable systems under Marxist-Leninist principles, even despite pressure from the capitalist West to “reform,” so maybe I’m overstating my case. Even so, I still think it’s imperative to remind my dear readers that arguments about what kind of socialist government should replace the current capitalist world order should wait until after we gain the upper hand. Arguments over whether Marxists, anarchists, primitivists, or syndicalists are correct should wait until after we’ve extricated ourselves from under the crushing weight of income inequality and climate change. What matters now is that the capitalists are hurting people, and we need to make them stop!

And that’s another episode of The Complete Noob’s Guide to the Left in the bag! Join me in future installments as I look at the various communist ideologies that directly spun off from Marxism-Leninism, like Stalinism, Trotskyism, Maoism, Titoism, Guevarism, and others. Stay tuned for those, and maybe keep an eye for this year’s Christmas special sometime later this month. See you then, beautiful watchers!