Stalin’s Place in History: Assessing the Social Role of the Great Assassin

Submitted by dalcassian on 15 June, 2013 - 5:04

Stalin is the greatest man of all times, of all epochs and peoples.—Sergei Kirov

Stalin proves himself a ‘great man’ in the grand style… Stalin is Lenin’s heir. Stalinism is Communism.—James Burnham

WHEN Lenin lay gravely ill, he gave much thought to the future of the revolution and the party which he, above all, helped to create. Fully aware of the dangers which surrounded the young, new state, uncertain of its future as an isolated and backward nation, he concerned himself with the internal situation in the party which now ruled the country alone. In his famous ‘Testament’ he turned directly to the problem of relations within the leadership which he described in the following unequivocal manner:

By stability of the Central Committee…, I mean measures against a split, so far as such measures can at all be taken… Our party relies upon two classes, and therefore its instability would be possible and its downfall inevitable if there were no agreement between those two classes… I think that from this standpoint the prime factors in the question of stability are such members of the Central Committee as Stalin and Trotsky. I think relations between them make up the greater part of the danger of a split… Comrade Stalin, having become General Secretary, has unlimited authority concentrated in his hands, and I am not sure whether he will always be capable of using that authority with sufficient caution. Comrade Trotsky, on the other hand, as his struggle against the Central Committee on the question of the People’s Commissariat for Communications has already proved, is distinguished not only by outstanding ability. He is personally perhaps the most capable man in the present Central Committee, but he has displayed excessive self-assurance and shown excessive preoccupation with the purely administrative side of the work. These two qualities of the two outstanding leaders of the present Central Committee can inadvertently lead to a split, and if our party does not take steps to avert this, the split may come unexpectedly.

Lenin proposed that the Central Committee of the party be so enlarged in order to neutralise the relations of Trotsky and Stalin in the leading committee and, as he hoped, to serve as a unifying force in the summits of the party.

One year later, however, on 4 January 1923,[1] he added a postscript to the ‘Testament’ saying:

Stalin is too rude and this defect, although quite tolerable in our midst and in dealings among us communists, becomes intolerable in a General Secretary. That is why I suggest that the comrades think about a way of removing Stalin from that post and appointing another man in his stead who in all other respects differs from Comrade Stalin in having only one advantage, namely, that of being more tolerant, more loyal, more polite and more considerate to the comrades, less capricious, etc. This circumstance may appear to be a negligible detail. But I think that from the standpoint of safeguards against a split and from the standpoint of what I wrote above about the relationship between Stalin and Trotsky, it is not a detail, or it is a detail which can assume decisive importance.

Shortly afterwards, and immediately prior to a turn in an illness that left him incapacitated until his death, Lenin, in a letter to Stalin, broke off all personal and comradely relations with him. A chain of events leading to this final act was followed with a proposal by Lenin to Trotsky for a political bloc against Stalin. The immediate cause for this was the sharp disagreement that broke out between Lenin and Stalin over the national question, particularly in Georgia, where the latter sought to Russify the country and had assumed bureaucratic control over the party.

The seriousness of that dispute is further revealed by Stalin’s attack on Lenin’s ‘national liberalism’ for advocating the structure of the new state on a basis of ‘federated republics’. One of the ‘peppery dishes’ this Georgian cook prepared in his triumph as an expert on the national question, was the subordination of all the minority nations to the supremacy of the Great Russians, in no fundamental sense different from the way great Tsars had ruled.

Our reference to the ‘Testament’ is for the purpose of recalling Lenin’s extreme sensitivity to the problem of the encircling and strangulating bureaucracy in the state and party, his forecast of a split as a result of a peculiar constellation of forces in the leadership, and his appraisal of the two principal figures in the subsequent struggle, one of whom was world famous, the other, an unknown and obscure figure.

The ‘Testament’ made clear that while Stalin was unknown to the world and perhaps to the Russian people and the party at large, inside the broad leadership of the organisation he was a prominent and dominant figure. Consequently, while it is true that he rose from obscurity, it was as a member of the leading cadre of the revolutionary party.

Lenin’s ‘Testament’ became known only after his death. The persistent demands of the Trotskyist Opposition and its surreptitious circulation throughout the party forced an official admission of its existence. We shall refer to these episodes shortly. First, however, it is necessary to deal with the significance of Lenin’s reference to the ‘obscure’ Stalin who was the second ‘most able’ man in the Central Committee. Upon the publication of the letter many said: See, we may not have known this man. But evidently he was one of the giants of the Bolshevik party. Even Lenin couples him with Trotsky as the two most able men of the Central Committee. And that accounts for his place in the leadership and his rise to power. Trotsky was always wrong in calling Stalin a ‘mediocrity’. This misjudgement of Stalin, moreover, obviously led to an underestimation of his ability and the defeat of Trotsky and every other prominent associate of Lenin.

On the face of it, looked upon purely as a struggle between personalities, this view appears credible. For example, more than 20 years after the beginning of the struggle between Stalin and his opponents, James Burnham discovered that greatness really fits Stalin—greatness being equated with success.

Several things require an immediate discussion of this evaluation of Stalin. What exactly did Lenin mean, and could he have meant, in coupling the names of Trotsky and Stalin? Did Trotsky really underestimate Stalin’s ability and therefore err in his struggle to the point where he guaranteed Stalin’s victory? What place in history does Stalin have as a figure for progress or retrogression, for the advancement of humanity or its retardation?


The world socialist movement, from the time of Marx and Engels, has had two basic levels of existence: the level of theory, principle and programme; and the level of action, organisation and administration. In the best parties and individuals, a synthesis is established between these levels in a natural, synchronised manner, with all the unevenness, differences of quality, strength, weakness and capriciousness that attach to all movements and men. Under the most favourable social conditions, these movements and men progressed and produced results of high quality. At unfavourable historical conjunctures, they exhibited their weaker sides as theoretical, political and organisational-admin-istrative crises arose.

Peculiarly enough, Tsarist society in the pre-revolution days provided a favourable arena for the development of revolutionary movements of a high order; many of them having men of considerable quality in their various leaderships. All the parties had their thinkers, writers, orators, organisers and practical men as distinguished from organisers. The Bolshevik party, as history has affirmed, contained them in greater abundance than any other party. For all the grave differences which separated these parties at varying times in their common development, the other parties had respect for the leading men of Lenin’s party. Throughout the bitter struggles between the Mensheviks and Bolsheviks, perhaps the most bitter factional struggle experienced by any party, many of the leaders on both sides had respect and even admiration for the abilities of their opponents.

The outstanding men of Lenin’s party were many-sided. They were theoreticians of socialism, great writers, orators, agitators and leaders of men. A mere mention of their names will recall their deeds: Bukh-arin, Preobrazhensky, Bogdanov, Zinoviev, Kam-enev, Riazanov, Sverdlov, Rykov, Tomsky, Sokolnikov and Krassin. There was, of course, Trotsky, already a famous figure beginning with his youthful leadership in the 1905 revolution—an exceptional thinker, writer and orator—who joined the Bolsheviks in 1917; Rakovsky, from the Balkans, Chicherin, Lunacharsky, Piatakov, Serebriakov and others, each of them making invaluable contributions to the movement.

When Lenin said that the two most able men in the Central Committee were Trotsky and Stalin, he caused no little concern to those whose opposition to the latter was accompanied by a complete rejection of the man as having no qualities whatever. Trotsky, as we shall show, was not guilty of such an underestimation of the man; neither were some other opponents of Stalin. The basic reason for their defeat is to be sought in politics rather than psychology, important as the latter may be in trying to understand the personalities in the struggle. Thus, the ‘Testament’ directed attention to the fact that Lenin, who was extremely perspicacious in his understanding and estimation of men, regarded Stalin as next to Trotsky the most able man of the Central Committee.

Stalin was an obscure figure of the party and the revolution, as history, despite its falsification in Russia, has firmly established. Prior to the revolution, through it as well, he wrote little or nothing. He initiated no great ideas or struggles, and contributed nothing whatever to the ideological life of the party, the most intense and active of any party we know. He was, and remained to his death, a speaker of poor quality in content and technique. While the party press contained the names of all leading men of the organisation, Stalin’s rarely if ever appeared. At party congresses he was usually a silent observer.

What attributes, then, did he have that recommended him to the leading staff of the party in the pre-revolutionary days, and caused Lenin to describe him as he did in 1922-23? The Bolshevik party, as an illegal party under Tsarism, had forced upon it methods of work, a character of life and a system of organisation which was in many respects peculiarly Russian, and, except in its centralism and forms of discipline, not unlike all the other illegal parties, including the Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries. With its leading staff living in exile, the Bolshevik Party had to develop an illegal organisation in Russia, the same as the other parties. The party could not survive and develop unless it progressed on various levels, theoretical, political and programmatic (for the most part designed by the émigré leadership), and organisational, administrative and in the field of action inside of Russia. It required for the latter, men of exceptional courage, skill, tenacity, men prepared to give their lives in the struggle to free Russia from Tsarist oppression. There were many such men in the party; Stalin was among the best of that type, inadequately described as the ‘practicals’.

The post-revolutionary period brought with it a new selection of men demanded by the new conditions of revolutionary reconstruction. Many were found wanting; others displayed an expanding ability and capacity under the new state. In the case of Stalin, who was originally a coopted member of the Central Committee, the post-revolutionary period of the expansion of state power and administration gave him an opportunity he did not and could not have had before. The sudden death of Sverdlov, which robbed the party of its greatest organiser, elevated Stalin from a figure of second rank to one of first. He became, upon the recommendation or proposal of Zinoviev, Secretary of the party. Yet prior to that time, Lenin too had pushed Stalin, we believe with Trotsky, because he valued his ‘firmness, grit, stubbornness, and to a certain extent his slyness as attributes necessary in the struggle’, which the weak state was experiencing. It is certain that Lenin did not require or expect from Stalin ‘independent ideas, political initiative or creative imagination’.

In all ideological matters, other men made the necessary contributions which gave the party and the new state the rhythm required for consolidation of growth. A review of the various congresses, conferences and other gatherings show these men of ideas to be Lenin in the first place, Trotsky, Bukharin, Zinoviev, Kamenev, Piatakov, Preobrazhensky, Sokolnikov, etc. They made the main political and policy reports. It would be wrong to believe, however, that the contributions of these men were ideological only. They were, all of them, men of great practical skill, too, heading the most important divisions of the state and the party as ‘practical’ men.

Yet, in the many-sided character of party life, a party which dominated the new state, the practical direction of its affairs required a man of no average skill in such matters. In the selection of Stalin for the post of party Secretary, there is no doubt that the Central Committee felt it had that kind of person, strong-willed, experienced and devoted to the party, one who could keep the organisation functioning at its highest capacities in the tests that seem to confront the organisation daily.

If this be doubted, one has only to ask: In what other sense could Lenin have termed Stalin one of the two most able men of the Central Committee? All of the biographers of Stalin and the Russian Revolution agree on this: that Stalin was in no sense, at any time, one of the ideological leaders of the Bolshevik party, neither prior to the revolution, nor after. There are no lasting theoretical contributions made by him. His writings are indeed exceedingly scarce in the years before he became the chief of the Russian state and party. What he did write was anything but outstanding or even worth remembering. Not even the Stalinist school of falsification has been able to resurrect any body of writings prior to 1924 to make a respectable volume of his collected works. Where other leaders of the revolution were widely known for their public activities as writers, speakers and organisers, Stalin was correctly described as an ‘obscure’ figure, strong only in the ranks of the leading cadres of the party, and not greatly loved among them.

Stalin was General Secretary of the party for only one year when Lenin wrote his ‘Testament’ to warn about the dangers of a split. In another few months, he proposed the removal of Stalin as Secretary. Thereafter, he broke off all comradely and personal relations with him. These are the incontestable facts. They show that, if Lenin erred in his sponsorship of Stalin, it did not take him long to see the mistake and to attempt to remove him. He did not propose to remove Trotsky, or Bukharin, or even Zinoviev and Kamenev, to save the unity of the party and to fight every burgeoning bureaucracy. No, among the leading staff, he proposed to remove Stalin, and only Stalin. But, as history has shown, it was already too late!

Too late? Yes, too late, for already the bureaucracy inside the party and the state had grown too powerful and resistive to heed a proposal from the leader of the party and the state. This in itself is a forceful reply to the critics of the revolution that Lenin was dictator of the party and new state. It is an unusual dictator, indeed, who could not affect the removal of a subordinate official before he had fully consolidated his post. And yet, this, too, is the historical fact: Lenin’s request that Stalin be removed from his post as General Secretary was unheeded not only by the rising new bureaucracy in the party, but by what has been called ‘Lenin’s general staff’. Twice Stalin offered his resignation, once in anger, another time with indifference. On both occasions, he knew the results beforehand. A packed committee and a packed congress cried out: ‘No, No!’ That ended all proffers of resignation.

Behind this refusal to carry out Lenin’s proposal lies the whole story of the subsequent degeneration of the revolution and the leadership which made it. It is a story of inner-party intrigue, of political deals among differing groups, the achievement of momentary periods of internal peace, the outbreak of new inner crises resulting finally in Stalin’s complete victory as the undisputed, single leader, the dictator of party and state. It ended in the defeat, dispersal and physical annihilation of all other leaders of the party, his inferiors as well as superiors, personal friends as well as enemies.

Lenin was fully aware of the forces of degeneration which were operating in the nation during the years following the Civil War. He was deeply concerned with at least two of the most powerful expressions of this degeneration: the rise of bureaucratism in the state and party, and the growth of ‘Great Russian chauvinism’ in the national question. When he said ‘We have bureaucratism not only in the Soviet institutions but also in the party’, he had in mind Stalin and his new administration.

Lenin was outraged at the Georgian affair, as we indicated before. He wrote to Trotsky:

It is my earnest request that you should undertake the defence of the Georgian case in the Party Central Committee. This case is now under ‘persecution’ by Stalin and Dzerzhinsky, and I cannot rely on their impartiality. Quite to the contrary. I would feel at ease if you agreed to undertake its defence.

To Mdivani and Makharadze, victims of Stalin’s machinations, he wrote:

I am following your case with all my heart. I am indignant over Ordzhonikidze’s rudeness and the connivance of Stalin and Dzerzhinsky. I am preparing for you notes and a speech.

Simultaneously, Lenin advised: ‘The political responsibility for all this truly Great Russian nationalist campaign must of course be laid on Stalin and Dzerzhinsky.’ He prepared material for Trotsky to use as his ‘bomb’ since he was too ill to be present at the Twelfth Congress. When Trotsky wanted to inform Kamenev, once involved in Georgian matters, Lenin said: ‘Under no circumstances. Kamenev will immediately show everything to Stalin and Stalin will make a rotten compromise and then deceive us.’

The Georgian affair was the final straw for Lenin. It brought about the end of any comradely and personal relations between Stalin and Lenin, and while it in no way determined what happened in the post-Lenin history of Russia, in the Stalin era, it did establish what were Lenin’s true relations to Stalin. History shows Stalin to be anything but Lenin’s disciple.


Trotsky once wrote:

Those theoreticians who attempt to prove that the present totalitarian regime of USSR is due not so much to historical conditions, but to the very nature of Bolshevism itself, forget that the Civil War did not proceed from the nature of Bolshevism but rather from the efforts of the Russian and the international bourgeoisie to overthrow the Soviet regime.

The chaos visited upon the new regime resulted from the long years of Civil War, the stress, poverty and disintegration which it provoked. The decline of the revolutionary curve in Europe resulted in enforcing the isolation of the revolution, an isolation fortified by the technical and cultural backwardness of the country. The cultural backwardness of the country made reconstruction more difficult, many of the tasks posed to the new state appearing insurmountable. Lenin once remarked that ‘their culture [the old classes] is at a miserably low and insignificant level. Nevertheless it is higher than ours. Miserable and low as it is, it is still higher than that of our responsible communist administrators.’

The factor of cultural backwardness piled on to the isolation of the country, the decline of the revolutionary curve, the growth of weariness throughout the land, the change in the composition of the party through the influx of tens of thousands of new members, and the loss of the revolutionary cadre, made it easier for the new bureaucracy and the new leadership under Stalin to progress and consolidate its rule. These are the objective social factors which acted as favourable forces in Stalin’s rise to power.

The story of Stalin’s victory in his long-drawn-out struggle for power has already been set down in history. It is marked by endless duplicity, retreats, advances, ideological dishonesty, directionless, except as to the goal of complete power, unprincipled blocs and counter-blocs. It would seem that his victory was the product of pure individual superiority in all spheres of human activity in which all opponents are defeated precisely because of their corresponding inferiority. If history was solely the story of individual endeavours and conflict, the story of Stalin’s rise would be simple indeed. But it is anything but simple. His victory came after long struggles characterised by momentary victories and defeats, fears, hesitations and new advances, followed by stalemates, new blocs, new battles won and new exaltations over the prostrate body of a new opponent, or personal-friend-turned-enemy-overnight.

Trotsky was willing to grant that he made mistakes in the fight against Stalin. We believe he made grave ones. But in re-evaluating that struggle in the light of the objective social situation in the country, it is impossible to gainsay Trotsky’s thesis that the world situation more than any other factor made Stalin’s reactionary victory certain. As he wrote in Stalin :

My illness and my subsequent non-participation in the struggle was, I grant, a factor of some consequence; however, its importance should not be exaggerated. In the final reckoning, it was a mere episode.

Stalin’s bloc with Zinoviev and Kamenev was made at a time when they, not he, were prominent and favoured public personalities. Together they began the filthy campaign against ‘Trotskyism’ in an effort to destroy Trotsky and prevent his replacement of Lenin at the helm of the party and the state. The campaign succeeded in Russia and in the world communist movement. The shameless aim of Zinoviev and Kamenev succeeded too well; it prepared their own downfall. For the defeat of Trotsky did not result in the rise of Zinoviev and Kamenev to new heights, but rather thrust Stalin forward as a new national and international figure and hero.

The party machine was already Stalin’s. From 1922 on he had been building carefully, expanding the apparatus with his hand-picked functionaries and old cronies, all of them distinguished by similar traits, practicals without great learning, anti-intellectual, untrained in the great world socialist school, provincials, more at home in day-to-day political affairs on a lower plane. They were old party members, it is true, but a wide gulf separated them from the great figures of the party.

Though the first struggles saw Stalin’s bloc with Zinoviev and Kamenev dissolved and a new struggle arise between a bloc now of Stalin-Bukharin-Rykov-Tomsky against the Trotskyist left opposition, joined by Zinoviev and Kamenev—the new blocs being dissolved as soon as this battle was won by Stalin—the great figures were already undermined in the party.

If the Twelfth Congress in 1923 was a packed congress, the subsequent congresses, Thirteenth, Fourteenth and above all, the important Fifteenth Congress in 1927, were Stalinist congresses in the true sense of the term. The Fifteenth Congress, the most vulgar in the history of the party, expelled the Left Opposition and resulted in Trotsky’s exile to Alma Ata in 1928. Thus, 10 years after the revolution, the organiser of the Red Army found himself once more in Siberia.

Stalin had emerged, as Trotsky said, ‘with increasing prominence as the organiser, the assignor of tasks, the dispenser of jobs, the trainer and master of the bureaucracy’. No sooner was the Left Opposition disposed of than he began the task of destroying the ‘Right Wing’, the Bukharin group. In another year, they too would go. It would all end in the Moscow Trials as his crowning achievement. For in the full glory of his ‘greatness’, in his unchallenged and unprecedented power, Stalin had to destroy physically every old leader of the party and the state including his own original group of political and personal friends.

Political factors alone cannot explain everything about Stalin’s career. They provide the general setting in which he functioned, but he contributed to these his specific personality which has been so difficult to penetrate. The enigma of Stalin is in part due to the fact that he ‘seems to have no prehistory’. Trotsky wrote:

The process of his rise took place somewhere behind an impenetrable political curtain. At a certain moment his figure, in the full panoply of power, suddenly stepped away from the Kremlin wall, and for the first time the world became aware of Stalin as a ready-made dictator. All the keener is the interest with which thinking humanity examines the nature of Stalin, personally as well as politically. In the peculiarities of his personality it seeks the key to his political fate.

Trotsky proceeds to provide a key to this personality:

It is impossible to understand Stalin and his latter-day success without understanding the mainspring of his personality: love of power, ambition, envy—active-never-slumbering envy of all who are more powerful, rank higher than he. With that characteristic braggadocio which is the essence of Mussolini, he told one of his friends: ‘I have never met my equal.’ Stalin could never have uttered this phrase, even to his most intimate friends, because it would have sounded to crude, too absurd, too ridiculous. There were any number of men on the Bolshevik staff alone who excelled Stalin in all respects but one—his concentrated ambition. Lenin highly valued power as a tool of action. But pure love of power was utterly alien to him. Not so with Stalin. Psychologically, power to him was always something apart from the purpose which it was supposed to serve. The desire to exert his will as the athlete exerts his muscles, to lord it over others—that was the mainspring of his personality. His will thus acquired an ever-increasing concentration of force, swelling in aggressiveness, activity, range of expression, stopping at nothing. The more often Stalin had occasion to convince himself that he was lacking in very many attributes for the acquisition of power, the more intensely did he compensate for each deficiency of character, the more subtly did he transform each lack into an advantage under certain conditions.


The most difficult thing to comprehend in Stalin’s rise to power is his triumph over all the great leaders of the party and the revolution. One shakes his head at the incredibility of the results—one after another, Trotsky, Zinoviev, Kamenev, Bukharin, Tomsky—all of them superior men—are defeated. The empirical observer shies away from the necessary and difficult task of explaining an event or a series of them in an all-sided manner, in their relation to objective social factors, as events in motion, at a given time and place. He short-circuits these requirements for a judgement based on the simple criterion: success or non-success. Where Stalin was concerned, the views of his victory and his role has been as variable as the political views of the observers.

No explanation of Stalin’s victories makes any sense to them except that Stalin, the unknown, was obviously superior in all vital respects to his opponents. The proof? He won in all the internal struggles in the post-Lenin era, and rose to be the supreme leader of Russia, achieving a status that even Lenin never enjoyed. In a country where theory and generalised evaluations have small currency, but where success is the measure of achievement and truth, this view of Stalin’s rise to power is highly prized.

Whatever one’s private opinions may be about the personal characteristics of the men engaged in the great internal struggles of post-revolutionary Russia, the fact is that Stalin’s rise to power did come with a decline of the revolutionary curve, in a period of mass reaction not only against the policies of the old revolutionary leadership, but against the instability, insecurity and conflict of society itself. The continued chaos of Europe, not a revolutionary chaos, but the conservative chaos of capitalist stabilisation, enhanced the conservative tendencies within the Russian society. The Stalinist faction rose with this conservatism, this desire for peace and work. To say this is not to imply that the leaders of the revolution sought to continue the policies of 1917. An examination of the discussions in the Russian party and the Communist International shows that main orientation was toward an accommodation to what was called the ‘stabilisation’ of capitalism, with all its contradictory rhythms. But it is obvious to the student of the revolution and the internal struggle, that the masses, generally, and the ‘new’ party, did not, as it were, trust the old revolutionary leadership. They put their faith in the rising Stalinist faction which never ceased to attack its opponents as international ‘adventurers’ who threatened the very existence of Russia. The nature of this kind of an attack against the Opposition coincided with both the nationalistic bias of the Stalinist faction and the strong nationalism of the masses against the ‘foreigners’ (the exiles in the leadership).

Next in importance to the change in the objective conditions of the revolution is the change in the party itself. Stalin’s victory in the old Bolshevik party, we have a right to believe, would have been impossible. Stalin’s faction, an immense layer of the new bureaucracy, ignorant of theory and caring less, without a strong tradition, impatient with genuine politics, could win only in another kind of party.

Five years after the revolution, the party’s composition had completely altered. The revolutionary generation which gave the party its absolutely unique character, had all but disappeared. Where it remained, it was overwhelmed by the new layers of the post-revolutionary generation, drawn to the party because it had been victorious. These new party masses had chosen a winner. Like the Stalinist faction, they were impatient with theoretical and political discussion, indifferent to the traditions of the party, and unconcerned with its long and varied history. In Lenin’s party, Pravda could never have said as it did in 1926, that ‘the party does not want arguments’. For in Lenin’s party, the revolutionary party, there were nothing but arguments, that is, there never was a period in that party in which great theoretical and political disputes were not current, political factions did not exist, function and carry out struggles for their views.

Ten years after the revolution there remained in the party less than one per cent of the membership of the pre-revolutionary days. Stalin’s reactionary struggle rested upon 90 per cent of the new membership, the representatives of the new bureaucracy, which thrust him forward as their outstanding representative and leader. It was to this new movement to which he lent his character.

Stalin’s early victories brought with them a complete transformation of the Russian and international movements. The first victim of his rule was not the old leadership. The first victim was the idealism of the movement, its socialistic mores. The whole great goal of man’s liberation from oppression and exploitation gradually disappeared in favour of an exaltation of ‘practical’ successes, until the goal was lost completely. The revision of theory and programme which accompanied the change was so complete in its scope that the great democratic and liberating traditions of Marxism disappeared entirely from this movement. The concept of socialism took on an entirely new meaning under Stalin.

Immediate aims, industrial indices, ingot production, increasing state power, nationalisation and collectivisation of property became an end in themselves and forced upon the new bureaucracy new goals and theories that no longer had anything to do with socialism. Under socialism, industrial advance is inconceivable without the simultaneous rise in the standards, economic, political, social and cultural, of all the classes. For socialism, all-sided progress means the gradual decline of the forces of coercion, the state and its armed forces. For socialism, social advance means the gradual rise of an ‘administration of things’, an increasing democracy, and a gradual disappearance of the old classes and the class society. The reality and the tendency of Stalinist society are not merely different from socialism, but more in another direction.

Under Stalin, the revolutionary party disappeared, and with it went all the forms of the independent intervention of the working class in the social process. The soviets as soviets disappeared. The trade unions became transformed from the independent economic organisations of the working class into state organisations for the purpose of chaining more securely the masses to the needs of the bureaucratic state. In the factories, the managers, making up an enormous section of the bureaucracy, ruled unmolested, and workers’ control disappeared even before it had an opportunity of fully expressing its economic role.

Party life was completely transformed. The old free party, already suffering malformations because of the long-drawn-out civil war and economic distress, had lost all of its old traditions and characteristics. There were no longer any free discussions, no factions except that of the new leadership, no elections of importance and few if any congresses of delegated bodies. The point was finally reached when congresses began to be held five years apart, and then 10, and even more. Leadership of the bureaucracy, if not the individuals, became permanent without any possibility of intervention by the party ranks. Yet this condition suited the new membership of the new party.


The critics of Bolshevism seem not to understand the above transformation. In referring to it, the whole nature of the objective situation which had contributed so much also to the destruction and degeneration of the social democratic movement, and of what remains of capitalism, is rejected in favour of a simpler thesis: Stalinism grew out of Bolshevism and was its natural heir. Even more intelligent historians who readily assert that Stalinism and Bolshevism are antagonistic, antipodean, destroy their own valuable contributions by a psychological inability to draw the inevitable conclusions to their own material. Thus, at the end of their excellent studies, protrudes the simplistic idea that Stalinism is not so much a new phenomenon as it is the natural, evolutionary product of Leninism. Why? Because Lenin’s conception of a centralised party when carried out in life, had to produce Stalinism. These historians, too, leave the field of objective analysis, for in arriving at this conclusion, they express not the results of their studies, but their own political bias as it has developed over the years and, whether they understand it or not, conform to a particular world political situation of which they are an active part.

There is no doubt that a highly centralised party such as Lenin created to meet the conditions of struggle against Tsarist absolutism also created tendencies toward bureaucratisation, no more nor less, however, than the other parties which functioned in the same milieu (the Mensheviks and the Socialist Revolutionaries). If the party of Bolshevism contained the seeds of bureaucratic degeneration, so did all the parties in Russia, and so do all parties or organisations, per se . The degeneration of the Bolshevik party, however, did not come as a result of an inner-logic of a specific organisational concept or practice, but as a result of historical factors. The test of that truth is that the victory of Stalinism came only after years of the most intense internal struggle and in the form of a counter-revolution inside the party and the society. Or, to put it more accurately, the social counter-revolution in the party which is supposed to have produced the phenomenon, logically and inevitably. What is more, these same critics are forced to admit, in contrasting the two epochs of the movement, that Lenin was a democrat and that the party was free despite the conditions of illegality and the sea of backwardness in which it had functioned. It was obviously not the discipline of the party, nor the system of cooptations which paved the way for Stalinism, but for the more important factors already cited.[2]

The advocates of the aforementioned theory are left somewhat helpless to explain why, under the conditions of bourgeois democracy, especially in the United States, practically all organisations, political and economic, are either totally or partially bureaucratised. They run the gamut from AFL craft unions to the bourgeois political parties which are run exclusively from above, or by factions of the big bourgeoisie. Not even the smaller political parties are exempt from this process.

To say, as some do, that organisation (any organisation) means bureaucracy is again a simplification that confounds rather than explains. Bureaucracy is a social phenomenon which can only be explained most satisfactorily on the basis of objective historical factors. Yet it is a phenomenon which is so filled with the personal element, the involvement of people, that it is not enough to pass it off by the above generalised statement. The factor of culture, a low or backward culture, contributes much to our understanding of the phenomenon. So long as society is not free, so long as factors of exploitation and oppression remain, that is, so long as human society remains backward in relation to the attainment of total democracy, culture will remain backward, and bureaucracy will be an ever-present phenomenon.

The bureaucratisation of Russian society, then, can be best understood, not as a chemically-pure product of a certain type of party, but the expression of a counter-revolution, in a backward country, whose culture has lagged historically behind even the Western world. Stalin is no more the heir of Lenin than a Hoover or an Eisenhower is the heir of Lincoln, no more than Morris Hillquit was and Norman Thomas is the heir of Eugene V Debs. On the other hand, John L Lewis, William Green and David Beck are the heirs of Samuel Gompers. And Joe Ryan is a kind of heir of American craft unionism. They reflect the long bureaucratic tradition of the AFL. In saying this, however, we are describing only the surface aspects of the phenomenon, and do not touch the heart of the bureaucratic problem which demands a study all its own.

Lest anyone protest at these analogies to point out that there is a substantial difference between the examples cited, we may add that the difference is primarily quantitative rather than qualitative. That which the Stalinist, bourgeois, union and political bureaucracies have in common is their indifference to the desires and needs of the masses and their right to decide their own fates. Stalinist bureaucratism, coincident with state power in a one-party nation, gave way to a totalitarianism which, if not more extensive than others we have known, is certainly a more extensive system of rule than those of the fascists. What makes it so is the character of the social order which governs in Russia, the system of bureaucratic collectivism as an anti-capitalist, anti-socialist society. It is not the Russian climate or the organisation of Lenin’s party which made it so.

This Russian society did not emerge at once with Stalin’s victory. Trotsky once wrote that if Stalin knew where he was leading, he might have hesitated in his drive for power. This is, of course, purely speculative. But it is certain that Stalin had no idea in the 1920s where his rule would end. Stalin was above all a political improviser, whose policies developed from day to day, without long-range perspective. If he is to be credited with the revisionist and nationalist theory of ‘socialism in one country’, a reading over of the disputes on this question show that neither he nor any of his followers knew exactly the significance of the theory or its practical possibilities for transforming the whole character of the revolution.

Once in power, Stalin, driven on by the logic of his dictatorial rule, had to wipe out every trace of the old party. As Isaac Deutscher vividly described it:

He knew that the old generation of revolutionaries, though weary and humiliated, would, with very few exceptions, never be wholeheartedly converted to Miracle, Mystery and Authority [Stalinist leadership—AG]; and that it would always look upon him as a falsifier of first principles and usurper. He disbanded the Society of Old Bolsheviks, the Society of Former Political Prisoners, and the Communist Academy, the institutions which the spirit of Bolshevism had as its last refuge. These moves indicated the stretch of the road he had travelled since he had begun his struggle against the ‘ex-Menshevik’ Trotsky in the name of the Old Bolshevik Guard. He now appealed to the young generation, not, of course, to its restive spirit, but to its more timid and yet very important mass, which, though eager to learn and advance socially, knew little or nothing about the pristine ideas of Bolshevism, and was unwilling to be bothered about them. This younger generation, as far back as it could remember, had always seen the leaders of the various opposition in the roles of either whipping boys or of flagellants. It had been accustomed from childhood to look up to Stalin wrapped in Mystery and Authority.

To enforce his rule, Stalin introduced the police regime into the life of the nation and the party. Discussion ceased as the method of resolving differences. There was no need for it since differences were ruled out by decree. Only the Boss had the right to changing views, and only he had a right to change what was once adopted. Hooliganism and rudeness replaced the old inner life of the party. Souvarine points out:

The annals of Bolshevism contain plenty of bitter fights, barbed polemics and noisy and passionate episodes. But in this party, where Lenin practically never used the familiar ‘thou’ to anyone, the strictest courtesy was always the rule, even in the midst of the Civil War, and exceptions strike a jarring note. The era of Stalin inaugurated new usages.

The snide critics of Lenin, who take political revenge on Bolshevism and the Russian Revolution by likening the leadership of Lenin to Stalin, overlook this simple truth: While Lenin was the authentic leader of the Bolshevik party, there was no end of differences, violent disputes and even at times splits. Lenin was more than once a minority in his party. This happened not only prior to 1917, but after 1917, and most prominently during the discussions of the Brest-Litovsk treaty. Nothing like that can be said about the era of Stalin’s dictatorship, for the simple reason that no differences were permissible and no discussions possible. In the Stalinist era, not even agreement and abject fealty to the Boss was a guarantee of one’s activity or life. In Souvarine’s words:

It would be difficult to distinguish in Stalin’s professions of socialist faith at that time, the varying proportions of hypocrisy and ignorance. But as one watches the sacrifice of the individual workers to the parasitic state, and that of the revolutionary generations to the myth of the too-fascinating Plan, one cannot doubt one primary fact: five years after Lenin’s death, Leninist notions of socialism had no longer anything whatever in common with the doctrines put forward under the same label… Russian history throws a better light on the Soviet regime devoid of soviets, than the arbitrary references to Marxism, of which Stalin actually represents the antithesis.


The falsification of history ordered by Stalin had as its aim the elevation of Stalin to greatness, nay, to the rank of genius. The whole history of the party and the revolution was rewritten not once but many times. Since each new year required a new myth, since each new history could not match the imperative psychological yearnings of a Stalin in absolute power, the rewriting of history became a permanent profession while the lives of successive historians were quite temporary. Where ordinary mortals develop from childhood to manhood in accordance with objective circumstances and opportunities, to which they lend their real and potential talents, Stalin had to be transformed into a semi-God, a genius from childhood, the first disciple of Lenin, and not merely the first disciple, but Lenin’s lifelong friend and counsellor. No truly great man would, of course, require or permit the transparent hypocrisy of the fawning adulation expressed for Stalin in the 25 years of his rule. There was absolutely no precedent for it in the whole history of socialism. It was a part of Stalin’s vulgarity, and the length to which it went was obscene. Bertram D Wolfe wrote:

… if we try to represent him ‘the best disciple of Comrade Lenin’ and to present all other leading ‘disciples’ as weaklings and foul and unfaithful traitors; if further we wish to portray him as ‘Lenin’s closest collaborator throughout the history of our party… from the very inception of Bolshevism, Lenin’s co-worker in the building of the party’ (Molotov); if, despite the 10 years of difference in their ages, we would picture Stalin as advising Lenin from the start and ‘having no little influence on Lenin’ (Kalinin); if, moreover, he is indeed ‘the greatest of our contemporaries’ (Barbusse, Mikoyan, Beria, and others); ‘the most profound theoretician of contemporary times’ (Beria); ‘no one so able to penetrate into the most secret recesses of the human heart’ (Shvernik); ‘the God-appointed leader of our military and cultural forces’ (Patriarch Sergius); ‘the father of us all’ (Yaroslavsky); ‘the greatest man of all times, of all epochs and peoples’ (Kirov)—then the need to establish the precocity of his genius and the vast sweep of his early rebelliousness becomes more understandable.

In ordering the rewriting of his entire life, Stalin was fully aware that he had to rewrite, too, if it were at all possible, the history of all the other leaders. And this he tried by portraying every one of them as spies, saboteurs, enemies of the people, and foreign agents in the pay of bourgeois and fascist governments not merely in their latter-day lives, but practically from the first days of their participation in the socialist movement. Such a reckless indifference to truth and to life itself cannot be reconciled to the ideals of socialism, and attest in another way, and that there was not and is not now the slightest aspect of socialism to be found in the totalitarian regime of Stalinism.

In all history there has never been such obeisance paid a head of state—not even to Hitler or Mussolini. It would seem that even to a totalitarian leader, an ever-rising crescendo of hussahs to his political genius and leadership would suffice. But envy was not least of Stalin’s characteristics. He was envious of contemporaries who excelled over him in intellectual attainments. To be paid tribute for his leadership over an entire nation was not enough. Yet he needed just such expressions of servility. He not only tolerated but instigated the many expressions of praise to his genius. His hypocrisy was nowhere better expressed than in his display of modesty, perhaps the last, in Tiflis in 1926. Replying to the eulogies of his friends, he said:

I must, in all conscience, tell you, comrades, that I have not deserved half the eulogy that various delegates have here given me. It appears from them that I am one of the October heroes, the director of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, the head of the Communist International, a peerless knight and all sorts of other things. This is mere fantasy, comrades, and a perfectly useless exaggeration. This is the way one speaks at the grave of a revolutionary. But I am not preparing to die.

But if Stalin protested against the ‘useless exaggeration’ in 1926, and described it as ‘mere fantasy’, which it was, he made no effort to stop the exaggerations which had become quite useful for his purposes.

He was all of these things: shock-brigader, legendary figure, a beloved commander, genial thinker, adored Stalin, the steel colossus, great engineer, great pilot, great master, great architect, the greatest disciple of the great master, the greatest of theorists, and the greatest of the great. The highest peak in Europe, Pamir, was renamed Stalin. Cities renamed after him were Stalingrad, Stalino, Stalin, Stalinabad, Stalinsk, Stalin-Aol, Stalinissi, Stalinir and Stalinogorsk.

Even this was not enough. He had to be great in all fields. So Revolution and Culture ranks him amongst the ‘profound connoisseurs and critics of Hegel’. Another journal calls him one of the ‘most authoritative specialists in contemporary philosophical problems’. Cultural Front writes that: ‘In reality, certain pronouncements of Aristotle have only been fully deciphered and expressed by Stalin.’ An instructor at the Communist Academy once said: ‘The full significance of Kantian theories can be fully embodied in contemporary science only in the light of Comrade Stalin’s last letter.’—a letter attacking ‘putrid liberalism’ and ‘Trotskyist contraband’.

He became overnight a great literary man. At the Literary Post wrote that Stalin ‘has always been distinguished by his profound understanding of literature’. Another periodical, Literary Gazette , advised that: ‘It is up to linguistics and criticism to study Stalin’s style.’

We are not done by any means. The writer Demian Biedny counsels literary men: ‘Learn to write as Stalin writes.’ ‘Ask me who best understands the Russian language’, said Kalinin, ‘and I reply—Stalin.’ Poems extol ‘the great face, the great eyes, the great and incomparable brow of Stalin’ whose appearance has the effect of a ‘ray of sunshine’. These accolades are summarised in the panegyric of Henri Barbusse, who described Stalin as ‘the man with the head of a scientist, the face of a worker and the dress of a plain soldier’.

The scale of this lavish and disproportionate praise is in inverse ratio to Stalin’s real accomplishments. Whatever Stalin may have been, he was never a philosopher or student of philosophy; he was never a literary man nor had he ever displayed any unusual interest either in literature or art; he had never until the very last years of his life shown any interest or accomplishment in the field of linguistics or philology, or science. But the lavish praise reached a plane that defies criticism, indignation or irony.

The man knew little or nothing about science and philosophy, of literature and philology, and his command of the Russian language was notoriously poor. Yet the need for greatness was so overwhelming that he sought to make up for a real failure of intellectual accomplishment by the bureaucratic device of making of himself a genius by decree. And this was in keeping with his politics. He resolved all problems by police measures; he made himself great in the same way. For woe unto those who failed Stalin here.

Before the great campaign to extol his many and universal virtues, Stalin made demands of his own personal friends and political allies that they too recognise his non-existent qualities and talents. In a state of exasperation, his old crony Yenukidze once burst out to a comrade: ‘What more does he want? I am doing everything he has asked me to do, but it is not enough for him. He wants me to admit that he is a genius.’

Krassin, who knew him well, called Stalin an Asiatic, not as a racial characteristic, but for the ‘blending of grit, shrewdness, craftiness and cruelty’. Bukharin merely called him a ‘Ghengis Khan’. The foregoing examples of the long campaign to make Stalin a great man, a campaign initiated by Stalin, emphasises the accuracy of Trotsky’s analysis of his characteristics which we have quoted.

The campaign to make Stalin a genius could only have occurred after the annihilation of the old party and its leading staff. It was possible only on the basis of the universal ignorance of the new generations that had grown up under the dictatorial regime of Stalin, on a falsification of history that never ended, on revised histories become old before they were fully circulated, on the destruction of revisionist historians who had already destroyed truth and fell into limbo because they could not keep up with the insatiable and vindictive appetite of the Velikyi Stalin (Stalin the Great) for fame.

The result of the great falsification and the campaign to make Stalin a genius was a total intellectual stagnation of the country. Stalin’s mediocrity determined the standards in science, art and literature as the Boss intervened in all these fields.

‘Literature and art of the Stalinist epoch’, wrote Trotsky, ‘were to go down in history as examples of the most absurd and abject Byzantianism.’ Souvarine listed numerous examples of the utterly reactionary campaign in literature and art, a campaign comparable to the architect of that other great totalitarian state of our time, Hitler. In more recent times we are familiar with the Great Russian chauvinist campaign against ‘cosmopolitanism’ and the rise of Russian Slavic historiography which has discovered that the real beginnings of civilisation are Russian in origin, as are all advances made by man in science and invention.

As a result of all this, the great revolutionary beginnings in literature, art and science, produced by October, were halted in their tracks. Under the Stalinist dictatorship these fields of culture and individual attainment were subordinated to the needs of the political regime and therefore stagnated completely. No great works of literature, of painting, or of the cinema were possible as long as the quixotic moods of the Kremlin determined what should be written, painted or produced cinematically. Music has had a similar fate, and the leading Russian composers have been declared enemies of the people for not composing symphonies that could be whistled.

Stalin’s excursions into the fields of culture were not dictated by any immediate or direct needs of his regime. Whether a Shostakovich symphony could be whistled or not, whether he wrote a quartet, sonata or an opera, could in no way affect the state of the nation, although an anti-Stalinist opera might conceivably be written. It certainly never would have been produced, and it would have been the last known work of its author. Modern abstract surrealist or non-objective art certainly could not and did not threaten the regime, yet Stalin personally forced Russian painting back more than a century. Stalin’s intervention in these fields, as in philology, literature and science were the result not of any compelling political need as it was an inner hungry drive in a cold, calculating, narrow and revengeful man who wanted history to record his life as one of universal greatness, as an individual who attained the highest pinnacles in all fields of human endeavour, as a superhuman person. He believed he could do it by decree, at the point of a Luger, as he ordered all things done in his police state.

‘It is hardly necessary to prove’, wrote Trotsky, ‘that a man who uttered not a single word on any subject at any time and was automatically raised to the top by his bureaucracy after he had long passed the age of 40 cannot be regarded as a genius.’ To believe otherwise is to assume that in Stalin we have a case of arrested development, the man beginning his rise to knowledge and greatness after the age of 50.

Perhaps it is too early to make any definitive evaluation of Stalin’s place in history. But it is certainly possible and necessary to make at least some provisional comments on the subject, since everything that we can possibly know about the life of the man is known. There remains then the matter of giving judgement to his deeds and accomplishments, not as achievements independent of their time and place, but in relation to several important historical factors.

Stalin did not live and function in some abstract society, that is, a socialist society in a single country, walled off from the rest of the world, as Bukharin once argued on behalf of that revisionist theory. He rose to the head of a state, a one-time workers’ state, in a capitalist world in crisis. The collapse of capitalism and its weakness as a universal social order coincided with a tremendous crisis of the socialist movement and these contributed as much to Stalin’s rise to power as did his victory in the protracted factional struggles inside the Russian party and state.

His rise to power as the dictator of the country was accompanied by an increasing bureaucratisation of the land and its eventual totalitarianisation. Russia became the most complete totalitarian police state the world has ever seen. In this it was distinguished from the Italian and German examples because while they remained bourgeois states, expressing the same class relations that existed in the democratic capitalist nations, the state showed a greater mobility of the bourgeoisie and a certain independence of movement and action in the ruling groups which seeped down through the lower layers of the fascist structure. Stalinist society, in contrast, became completely sealed off and its masses were thoroughly atomised.

The objective reason for this important difference in the two types of totalitarianism lay in the fundamentally different social orders which prevailed in these countries. Stalinist society, which we have described as a bureaucratic collectivist state, arose on the foundations of a revolution which abolished the bases of capitalism and created the groundwork for a classless socialist society. In the abolition of private property in the means of production, that is, in its nationalisation of industry, the revolution merely set the direction for future progress.

The new state was not yet a socialist state; far from it, in fact. The socialist leaders of the new state understood full well that socialism could not arise on the basis of a working-class victory in a single country, especially one backward industrially and technologically, and above all, culturally. In the absence of a similar development elsewhere, they hoped they could strengthen the basis of the new state by adopting socialistic measures that would begin the long and difficult development toward a new and free society. The degeneration of the revolution is the story of Stalin’s victory as a counter-revolution.

Stalin’s counter-revolution was directed not merely against the old leadership. This is the falsification of history by Stalin, a falsification which has influenced all the critics of the revolution, as well as some of its friends. The victory of Stalin is still regarded as a ‘palace revolution’ in which Stalin won out against his rivals; this being the process of all revolutions which have the habit of devouring their children. Among these critics, Stalin represents Marxism, socialism and Bolshevism.

Every achievement of the Stalinist regime is a living symbol of its anti-socialism and anti-Marxism. It is not merely a question of Stalin erring in this or that direction, on this or that specific question. No, the anti-socialism of Stalinism is fundamental—in its basic conceptions, its practices and its results.

Socialism means the elevation of every man and woman to great social and cultural heights which are attainable only under complete democracy, economic and political freedom. Lenin’s opposition to bourgeois democracy was not that it was democratic, but that it was not democratic enough; it was a class democracy and therefore incomplete. ‘Whoever wants to approach socialism’, he wrote, ‘by any other path than that of political democracy, will inevitably arrive at the most absurd and reactionary conclusions both economic and political.’ The living proof of this is the Stalinist dictatorship. There is no question that the revolution had made mistakes and grave ones. These have been pointed out more than once in the New International . They were the mistakes of a revolution in a backward country which inherited all the retrogressive features of Tsarist absolutism. This alone might not have produced a one-party regime, were it not for the counter-revolution of Tsarism, the intervention of the United States, Great Britain, France, and their First World War enemies on behalf of the rotten old regime, and finally, the attempt to overthrow the regime by the Socialist Revolutionaries and Mensheviks, which were not outlawed after October. The subsequent degeneration, however, was not historically determined simply by the conditions produced by the revolution and the counter-revolution. It is more accurate to say that the degeneration of the revolution through Stalin’s rise to power, that is, the counter-revolution, never gave the new state an opportunity for peaceful reconstruction over an extended period of time.

In erasing the achievements of the revolution, the Stalinist regime did not return to capitalism, as some contend, nor did it extend socialism economically—unconsciously or historically—as others contend, but evolved an entirely new system. It retained nationalised property, collectivised agricultural, destroyed whatever remnants of a private economy remained, encompassed within the purview of the state all matters economic and political, and therefore social. In a word, the collective state became the collective owner of collective property. It became a bureaucratic collectivist state, characterised by the most inhuman exploitation of the Russian people, and by the introduction of slave labour as a highly important adjunct to the economy, an indispensable part of the new system.

Such a regime could not evolve as any but a police regime to keep the classes enslaved and to safeguard the all-powerful and omniscient state. The vagaries of its conduct, its brutally, its inhumanity are the product of the system which beholds man not as the most important factor in life and society, but as an instrument of exploitation for the progress of machine production. If the regime exhibits cruelty beyond even the needs of this kind of state, it is only the added fillip—the state expressing the personalities which dominate it.

This writer holds that while Stalin was attracted to Marxian socialism in his youth, remained a devoted revolutionary against Tsarism and a faithful party man all his life, he never emerged from the mould of backwardness of the eighteenth-century nation where he was born. A careful examination of his life and work show that in Stalin, revolutionary socialism was wedded to a powerfully ingrained nationalism. He sincerely desired the destruction of Tsarism and saw the liberation of Russia from absolutism as a socialist act. His hatred of the émigré leaders and the boast of his cronies that they had never left Russian soil contributed to this nationalist bias. The Stalinists were the true provincials of the Russian movement, and this provincialism forced itself into all their works, their theories, politics and practices.

Stalin was both the creation and the personification of the new bureaucracy. The bureaucracy had grown out of the conditions of backwardness in Russia. In the system of bureaucratic collectivism, its superior position in society, gave it the form and content of a new ruling class, a ruling class more ruthless than any we have known. This class not only owned the state as its collective property, but reorganised Russian society to guarantee and perpetuate its collective rule as a class. In doing so, it also introduced political and social mores hitherto unknown either in bourgeois society or the broad and general socialist movement which arose as an anti-bourgeois movement.


Analogies are often made between the Russian Revolution and its leaders and the French. The analogies are all faulty, helpful as some of them may be in understanding certain of the Russian events. But the essential differences between the Russian and French revolutions are decisive when analogies are made between the Thermidor and the Stalinist counter-revolution. The Russian Revolution was a product of modern capitalism, a machine society of modern classes. The French Revolution came as a rebellion against feudalism and the absolutist regime. There is no strong and instructive analogy between the groupings in the French Revolution and the single party in Russia. As a consequence, while it is possible to draw some likenesses between Lenin and Trotsky and some of the great French rebels, there is no one to draw from to help in understanding Stalin.

Stalin is a unique personality. It is not alone his personal cruelty, his sadism and his envy which is unique. Other men have had those traits. But his hurts, resentments, bitterness and attachments which ‘he transferred from the small scale of the province to the grand scale of the entire country’, are destructive. Actually the French Revolution, enormous as it was in influencing the rest of the world, occurred within a limited geographical area and encompassed small numbers of people. No great international movement embracing millions was associated with it. No figure in the French Revolution exercised power approaching Stalin’s. And finally, no other figure in history was able by his malevolence to alter and determine the course of a world movement and a state embracing tens of millions of people, to upset a system of ideas a century old, and to destroy such powerful traditions as were associated with socialism. And he did all of this in the name of socialism. When he said that socialism required a strengthening of the state, not its withering away, his followers nodded, amen. When he asserted that socialism means inequality (only complete communism would create equality), great hossanahs were sung in his name. When he proclaimed that Russia had achieved full and complete socialism, amid backwardness, poverty and exploitation, hallelujahs were sung around the world.

The man who was wrong in his estimates and tactics on almost every important world question, was declared the most practical of men. He helped destroy the German socialist movement by his betrayal of the revolution, paving the way to Hitler’s victory. He made a bloc with Chiang Kai-Shek in 1927 that destroyed that revolution and the old Chinese Communist Party. He promulgated the theory of social fascism, and the Third Period, which isolated the whole Communist International from the world working class. He failed in his policy of ‘collective security’, and took out his spite against Great Britain, the United States and France by signing a pact with Hitler. The pact with Hitler almost proved his undoing by starting the Second World War which led to the invasion of his domain. Were it not for American intervention in the war and its assistance to Stalin, he could not have saved his regime.

The extension of the Second World War to global proportions served to perpetuate his regime and to help it flourish and expand, not so much because of its own inner strength, but because the war, in destroying Germany, Italy and Germany, almost destroyed the whole capitalist world and gave Stalin a new lease on life. Thus a series of fortuitous world circumstances, the disintegration of capitalism and the weakness of the socialist movement, allowed for an extension of Stalinism. In permitting that extension, it likewise introduced new and powerful forces for the disintegration of that system, primarily in the national and social rebelliousness of the new states now ruled by the Stalinist empire. Stalinism can no more solve the problem of national independence than could Hitlerism, and the Stalinist multi-national state is as much a fiction as a Hitlerised Europe would be. The break with Tito, the dissatisfactions in the countries behind the Iron Curtain, the rebellions in Czechoslovakia and the uprising in East Germany are all the unmistakable signs of the grave weaknesses of Stalinism.

Stalin has left the legacy of a new exploitative society, the most reactionary and bureaucratic social order we have ever known. He headed that society completely without once loosening his authority over that state and the movement associated with his name. No more apt description of that role has been given than by Trotsky when he wrote:

L’Etat, c’est moi! is almost a liberal formula by comparison with the actualities of Stalin’s totalitarian regime. Louis XIV identified himself only with the State. The Popes of Rome identified themselves with both the State and the Church—but only during the epoch of temporal power. The totalitarian state goes beyond Caesero-Papism, for it has encompassed the entire economy of the country as well. Stalin can justly say, unlike the Sun King: ‘La Société, c’est moi! ’


In reply to Ivan Smirnov that Stalin is ‘a mediocrity, a colourless nonentity’, Trotsky replied:

Mediocrity, yes; nonentity, no. The dialectics of history have already hooked him and will raise him up. He is needed by all of them—by the tired radicals, by the bureaucrats, by the Nepmen, the kulaks, the upstarts, the sneaks, by all the worms that are crawling out of the upturned soil of the manured revolution. He knows how to meet them on their own ground, he speaks their language, and he knows how to lead them. He has the deserved reputation of an old revolutionist, which makes him invaluable to them as a blinder on the eyes of the country. He has will and daring. He will not hesitate to utilise them and to move them against the party. He has already started doing this. Right now he is organising around himself the sneaks of the party, the artful dodgers. Of course, great developments in Europe, in Asia and in our country may intervene and upset all the speculations. But if everything continues to go automatically as it is going now, then Stalin will just as automatically become dictator.

This was said not in 1935 or 1930, but in 1924. It was said not in malice, but quite objectively, on the basis of a keen grasp of the currents which had developed in a party in control of the state, the only party in the land.

Trotsky measured greatness not by the yardstick of success, or achievement and accomplishment per se . The greatness of a man ought to be measured as a total contribution to progress of mankind, the elevation of society, the improvement of the economic, political, social and cultural advance of man collectively and individually. Great men are largely men of genius or near genius in many fields. They were the initiators of great ideas and great social progress, and they lived in all ages.

If success alone is the measure of greatness, then greatness would indeed have been commonplace and there would be no men of distinction. The yardstick by which a Burnham could measure the greatness of Stalin could apply to a Hitler or a Mussolini, or to any man in any field who merely succeeded in achieving a goal.

Burnham writes of Stalin: ‘Long ago… he succeeds.’ Impressive! What test of action? Success at the murder of all opponents! ‘The Moscow Trials have stood the test of action.’ Indeed! ‘Stalin’s political techniques show a freedom from conventional restrictions that is incompatible with mediocrity. The mediocre man is custom bound.’ Why does it follow? The same can be said of Hitler and Mussolini—all terrorists ‘show a freedom from conventional restrictions’.

But his greatness, continues Burnham, lies in Stalin’s theory of ‘multi-national Bolshevism’. ‘As a creative political idea’, he writes, ‘not merely or so much as a general theoretical conception of the nature of politics but as an idea fitted to implement politics in action, multi-national Bolshevism (Stalin’s contribution) ranks with Marx’s theory of the state, Trotsky’s theory of the permanent revolution, or Lenin’s analysis of capitalism in the stage of finance-imperialism.’ And this isn’t all. ‘Stalin has translated into a realistic political perspective the dream of theoretical geopolitics: domination of Eurasia.’ Like all of Burnham’s theories, these cannot stand the test of time or any other measure. And they are not necessarily new discoveries. Stalin’s theory of ‘multi-national Bolshevism’ is neither Bolshevik nor multi-national. It is merely Great Russian chauvinism expressing itself in its most blatant form; it is the triumph of those very ideas against which Lenin sought to organise the party through a bloc with Trotsky. Moreover, it is this very theory, and the practice which takes place under it, that is the Achilles heel of Stalinism, for it keeps the national minorities under Stalinist rule in a permanent state of opposition, ferment and struggle. Stalin’s ‘multi-national Bolshevism’ is a state of war of the Great Russians against all other nations in the Stalinist orbit. The measure of Burnham’s contribution is that he likens a modernised version of Tsarist policy on foreign affairs and on the national question to the great theoretical contributions of Marx, Lenin and Trotsky. Worst of all, this kind of contribution helps to muddy the already polluted waters in the struggle against Stalinism, for it pictures a power in that movement that is not there. Or to put it more accurately, it is precisely in that area of struggle that a movement against Stalinism is most ripe and contains the best possibilities of success. Realpolitik ! The scientific method!

In appraising the methods of Stalin, Burnham quotes approvingly from Hitler that politics was not conducted to satisfy ‘a few scholars or aesthetic sickly apes’ and which confounds intellectuals and writers who live in a ‘verbalised atmosphere’. For Burnham, even Stalin’s style, his rhetoric, was ‘in its own genre distinguished’. But Burnham overlooks this important fact: All of Stalin’s opponents were not just intellectuals and writers, observing events ‘coldly’ and ‘objectively’ from behind a typewriter. They were the men who organised and led the revolution. They were men of action as well as ideas. They stood out in the open, proclaimed their views and their goals, and went out and did their deeds. It was against men of this calibre that Stalin organised the bureaucracy.

When a Burnham rejects Trotsky’s description of Stalin as a mediocrity by asserting that the war established his greatness, he neglects to see that in so describing Stalin, Trotsky is comparing him with the truly great men of socialism, Marx, Engels, Kautsky, Mehring, Lenin, Luxemburg and even with himself. He wrote:

In attempting to find a historical parallel for Stalin, we have to reject not only Cromwell, Robespierre, Napoleon and Lenin, but even Mussolini and Hitler. We come close to an understanding of Stalin when we think in terms of Mustapha Kemal Pasha or perhaps Porfirio Diaz.

One need not subscribe to every word in the above to see the direction of Trotsky’s comparison and how much more accurate it is than Burnham’s re-evaluation.

Philip Rahv in his rejoinder to Burnham’s article in Partisan Review wrote pertinently on this question:

Stalin’s ruthlessness, his indifference to human suffering, and the unprecedented scale of his autocratic sway certainly link him, as Burnham remarks, to ‘the tradition of the most spectacular of the Tsars, of the great Kings of the Medes and Persians’, etc. But to conclude on that account that he is a great man is to judge him along purely aesthetic lines, that is, in the sense of the distinction drawn between the aesthetic approach and the ethical one. The aesthetic attitude is essentially that of the uncommitted person, of the detached onlooker gratified by spectacles. It is an attitude exhausted by the categories of ‘interesting’ on the one hand and the ‘boring’ on the other—categories as modern as they are inauthentic… But in politics, as in morals, the criteria of aestheticism are the least meaningful. In the historical struggle to which we are committed, Stalinism deploys enormous forces, and the one thing we cannot afford to do is to abandon our interests and values in order to convert, through an aesthetic sleight of hand, the tragic struggle into a show of ‘pure politics’, a show in which Stalin inevitably appears as the star-performer. Pure politics, like pure art, is a delusion. The committed man, that is the man who has accepted the hazards of his political existence, can no more attend such a show than he can attend his own funeral.

We think that is good enough—for the time being. Time will permit a fuller portrait of the hangman of the Russian Revolution. It will assess his true role and fully, too. But we can see the outlines of that role now. Stalin will be seen as the architect of a new society of reaction, a society that was the expression of the social barbarism of our times. It will record that in the twentieth century of man’s development he introduced a new industrial slave society under a totalitarian police regime. He did so in the name of freedom and socialism, by the physical annihilation of a party which gave him fame and of men who made possible his political career. He was helped to success by methods which have their origins in earlier and backward societies, using cruelty with modern weapons and the employment of psychology to turn against man out of a burning inferiority which drove him to triumph with unparalleled force, cunning and duplicity. He has enriched the history of man’s malevolence as he has filled its pages with the blood of countless thousands.

If this is greatness ‘in the grand style’ it is the greatness of barbarism, the greatness of social decline, of disintegration, of chaos. Compared to the struggle of mankind to rise above its present peaks of achievement to loftier ones, freedom and progress Stalin’s contributions to history are those of retrogression, as a mockery of man’s highest aspirations.

From: May-June 1953 New International

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