We know that Joseph Stalin ordered the murders of millions of people, but in a few individual cases his responsibility remains unclear. He probably had Sergei Kirov killed in order in order to create a pretext for the purges of the 1930s. He also might have been behind the death of the writer Maxim Gorky. Now, Russian historian Lev Lurie is giving new life to long-standing speculations that Stalin had Lenin poisoned, according to an article by Jacob Heilbrunn in The National Interest.
This possibility leads Heilbrunn to wonder what might have happened if Lenin had survived long enough to pass on the leadership of the USSR to someone less psychopathic than the "Great Architect of Communism." "Might the Soviet experiment, as it was known," Heilbrunn asks, "have turned out differently in the event of Lenin's ruling the Soviet Union for several more decades? Could he have made a go of the enterprise? Would Trotsky and Bukharin have been promoted rather than Stalin, and would a kinder, gentler Soviet Union have emerged?"
One of the problems with alternative history is that there is simply no way of knowing how things would have turned out if events had followed a different path. The USSR under Trotsky or Bukharin could conceivably have resulted in a less brutal regime. But the danger in this sort of speculation is that it leads us to the conclusion that persecution and mass murder were not consequences of the Communist system per se, but of a single individual who perverted the system.
While we don't have an alternative Soviet Union to serve as a basis of comparison, though, we do have other Communist states, including the short-lived regime of Bela Kun in Hungary, China under Mao, and Fidel Castro's Cuba. These have all been cases of highly repressive regimes and China, an "experiment" on the scale of the Soviet one, is perhaps the nation that comes closest to the USSR (and Nazi Germany, a different kind of "experiment") in sheer numbers of human beings eliminated. As Heilbrunn notes, responding to his own question, "[t]he preponderance of the evidence suggests that communist regimes based on Leninist principles quickly devolved into totalitarian societies."
Totalitarianism derives from the logic of social revolution. The complete reorganization of relations among people requires a program of unlimited coercion carried out by political agents. A social revolution, in other words, necessitates subordinating all connections among human beings to the dictates of planning by governmental bureaucracy. Stalin managed to prevail in the bureaucratic struggle for supremacy by agreeing to serve in the then unglamorous office of general secretary, which enabled him to fill positions with his collaborators. Both his ruthlessness and his organizational skills suited him to the intense bureaucratic competition of an environment in which political power was everything. Stalin didn't simply happen to grab control. He triumphed in the Bolshevik setting because he was so well adapted to it.