The truth about Stalin and Trotsky: a reply to Boris Stremlin

On June 25th the Dawn, the biggest and most influential English-language daily paper in Pakistan, published a lengthy article by one Boris Stremlin, Non-fiction: the old Bolsheviks of the new Russia, which was supposed to be a review of the new edition of Trotsky’s Stalin published recently by Wellred Books and edited by myself.

Trotsky's Stalin avaliable from WellRed Books

We are informed that Stremlin, of whom I confess I had never heard, is an academic who has taught history and sociology in the US, Turkey and Kazakhstan and has published articles on contemporary Russian ideology and other subjects. Having thus been forewarned of what kind of thing we might expect, we were not at all surprised by the end result.

In normal life, when two people have an argument, they might shout and wave their fists. But in the cosy world of academia, shut away in an ivory tower and “far from the madding world’s ignoble strife”, other, quite different methods are employed. Bourgeois lawyers in court employ the most learned language and the most exquisite politeness. They always begin “My learned friend”, before making the most ferocious and unscrupulous attacks, not just against the content of the other person’s speeches but also impugning the honesty of their motives and the veracity of their testimony.

Mr. Stremlin comes out of this very same school and his line of attack was therefore entirely predictable. He begins by saying some nice things about the publication of the new edition of Trotsky’s Stalin and is even kind enough to admit being impressed by Trotsky’s intellect. This is roughly the equivalent of sharpening a razor before slashing an artery:

“Rereading the book after more than a quarter century, I’m still impressed with Trotsky’s powerful intellect. Without access to much of his own archival material that had been seized by Soviet authorities, Trotsky easily demolishes official Stalinist historiography that assigns Stalin a dominant role in the 1917 Bolshevik insurrection and subsequent civil war, while deleting entirely the seminal part played by Trotsky.

“Similarly, Trotsky quashes the spurious accusations put forward during the Moscow Show Trials of 1936-1938, where he, as well as Bolshevik dissidents, Red Army commanders, and noted intellectuals and artists were charged with conspiring with Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan to overthrow the Soviet regime. Trotsky was among the first to challenge the official Soviet line on the Great Purges at a time when many leftists accepted it at face value, and his heroic contribution to setting the record straight still leaves all of us in his debt.”

So far so good, one might think. But as the Russian proverb goes, a spoonful of tar spoils a barrel of honey. And here we have to swallow, not just a spoonful but several well-filled shovelfuls of the stuff. Stremlin begins by describing the polemics of the Bolshevik Party as “obscure and sectarian activity”, or at least, they may seem so “to those looking at the struggle from the outside”. Stremlin nevertheless concedes that

“it is hard to deny that disputes among socialist groupings and parties in the early years of the 20th century had a decisive impact on the trajectory of the Soviet Union and later socialist regimes, as well as on the global system throughout the interwar and Cold War periods.”

These kind words notwithstanding, the entire content of the article makes it all too obvious that our friend Boris is not only “looking at the struggle from the outside”, but has a hostile attitude, not just towards Trotsky, but towards Lenin, Bolshevism and revolution in general. In this he is, of course, in perfect agreement with the overwhelming majority of bourgeois academics who, behind a suitably discreet curtain of false “objectivity”, in reality represent the interests of the class that pays their salaries and rewards their services generously.

The offensive against October

In order to understand the history of the last hundred years it is essential to have a scientific analysis of what happened to the Russian Revolution. How did it come about that the most democratic state that ever existed ended up as a monstrous bureaucratic and totalitarian regime? Unless we are able to answer this question we will never be able to attain a clear understanding of the most important events of our epoch.

But one would look in vain in all the mountain of books, articles and “learned” academic papers for any such understanding. The hundredth anniversary of the October Revolution has been met with a veritable tsunami of publications that are not at all designed to enlighten, analyse or explain the nature of an event that changed the history of the world. This counterrevolutionary literature has only one purpose: to lie about, denigrate, distort and belittle the Russian Revolution, and to insult and blacken the name of its leaders, who are presented as bloodthirsty monsters.

There is nothing new in all this. History shows that it is not sufficient for the ruling class to defeat a revolution. It is necessary to cover it with slanders, blacken the name of its leaders, and surround it with a cloud of malice and suspicion so that not even the memory of it will remain to inspire the new generations. In the 19th century when the historian Thomas Carlyle was writing a book about Oliver Cromwell he said that before he could begin he had to rescue Cromwell’s body from under a mountain of dead dogs.

The same malice and spite born of fear is what motivates the present efforts to deny the gains and revolutionary significance of the Russian Revolution and blacken the memory of its leaders. The systematic falsification of history now being undertaken by the bourgeoisie, although somewhat more subtle than the posthumous lynchings of the English monarchists, is in no way morally superior to them. Ultimately it will prove no more effective. The locomotive of human progress is truth, not lies. And the truth will not remain buried for all time.

Lenin and Trotsky Public Domain PD 1923Lenin and Trotsky 1919

Science versus subjectivism

How was it possible for the most democratic revolution in history to degenerate in such a way as to finish as a monstrous totalitarian dictatorship? That is a fair question and it deserves a serious answer. To superficial minds the answer to this question is simple: Stalin was smarter than Trotsky and therefore outmanoeuvred him. But such a simple explanation in reality explains nothing.

Bourgeois historians invariably approach history in a superficial way, laying heavy stress on the role of individual actors in the historical drama. The history books are full of kings, queens, statesmen and other “great individuals” whose actions allegedly constitute the mainspring of the historical process.

Marxism is different. It is based on dialectical and historical materialism. It explains history, not by the actions of “great individuals”, whether heroes or villains, but by profound processes that take place behind the backs of the individual actors and unseen by them. In the last analysis the destiny of a given society is determined by its ability to develop the productive forces.

This by no means denies the role of the individual in history, which can only be expressed through the actions of men and women. Indeed, under certain conditions the outcome of a great historical drama can be decided by the intervention of a small group of people or even by a single individual. Historical materialism, while not ignoring the role of individuals, teaches us to look beyond the individual players on the stage of history and look for deeper causes.

In given moments the role of a single man or woman can be decisive. We can say with certainty that without the presence of Lenin and Trotsky (particularly the former) in 1917, the October Revolution would never have taken place. However, individuals can only play such a role when all the other conditions are present. The concatenation of circumstances in 1917 enabled Lenin and Trotsky to play a decisive role. But the same men had been present for more than two decades before and were not able to play the same role. In the same way, when the Revolution ebbed, despite their colossal personal ability, Lenin and Trotsky were not able to prevent the bureaucratic degeneration of the Revolution. This was caused by objective forces against which even the greatest leaders were powerless.

The superficial and subjective approach of Boris Stremlin is immediately conveyed by the expression that Trotsky was “sidelined” by Stalin “en route to becoming the leader of the world’s first socialist state.” The question is thus reduced to a mere power struggle between two individuals. If we accept this method, it would follow logically that Trotsky wrote his biography of Stalin as an act of personal spite to take his revenge upon the man who had “sidelined” him.

There is nothing new in Stremlin’s approach. There have been many attempts to present “Stalin” as a work motivated by Trotsky’s desire to hit out at his enemy in the Kremlin, or at the very least as an account in which factors of a personal or psychological nature rendered an objective study impossible. Such a superficial judgement does a serious injustice to the author. Trotsky already anticipated these criticisms when he wrote:

“The point which I now occupy is unique. I therefore feel that I have the right to say that I have never entertained a feeling of hatred towards Stalin. In certain circles, there is a lot said and written about my so-called hatred for Stalin which apparently fills me with gloomy and troubled judgements. I can only shrug my shoulders in response to all this. Our ways have parted so long ago that whatever personal relationship there was between us has long ago been utterly extinguished. For my part, and to the extent that Stalin is the tool of historical forces, which are alien and hostile to me, my personal feelings towards Stalin are indistinguishable from my feelings towards Hitler or the Japanese Mikado.” (Stalin, present edition, chapter 14: The Thermidorian reaction; The revenge of history.)

Far from being motivated by a thirst for revenge against Stalin, Trotsky had absolutely no interest in writing this book and only accepted the offer made by an American publishing house as a result of his extremely difficult financial circumstances. All his interest at that time had been to produce a biography of Lenin. The work on Stalin he regarded as a most unwelcome diversion from this task and other important work. However, once he had embarked upon the task he approached it, as he approached all his work from the standpoint of the scientific method of Marxism. Personal considerations played no role in it whatsoever.

It goes without saying that Trotsky approaches the question of the Stalinist counterrevolution as a Marxist and a revolutionist. He has no need to conceal this behind a false and hypocritical “objectivity” as so many of our present-day academic historians do. It is sufficient to scratch the surface of the countless “learned” books that are churned out every year to provide us with “scientific proof” that Lenin and Trotsky were bloodthirsty monsters, for the mask of academic objectivity to slip, revealing the ugly, contorted features of a fanatical anti-Communist bourgeois.

Is there a contradiction between having a passionate interest in changing society and at the same time being capable of an objective appraisal of historical events and the role of individuals in the historical process? Let Trotsky answer for himself:


“In the eyes of a philistine a revolutionary point of view is virtually equivalent to an absence of scientific objectivity. We think just the opposite: only a revolutionist – provided, of course, that he is equipped with the scientific method – is capable of laying bare the objective dynamics of the revolution. Apprehending thought in general is not contemplative, but active. The element of will is indispensable for penetrating the secrets of nature and society. Just as a surgeon, on whose scalpel a human life depends, distinguishes with extreme care between the various tissues of an organism, so a revolutionist, if he has a serious attitude toward his task, is obliged with strict conscientiousness to analyse the structure of society, its functions and reflexes.” (Trotsky: The Chinese Revolution, 1938)


How did Stalin become the Leader?

At first sight Stalin would not seem an obvious choice to step into Lenin’s shoes. Bruce Lockhart, an important eye-witness, states in his memoirs that any such suggestion would have been greeted by the Bolsheviks in 1918 with roars of laughter. But Boris Stremlin cannot accept this. Because he views history through the narrow prism of individuals, their talents and abilities, or lack of them, it simply does not make sense. If Stalin defeated Trotsky, it follows that he must have been superior. After all, nothing succeeds like success!

Boris scratches his head in disbelief. He writes: “Stalin, according to the author of this newly edited biography, had no time for theory and partisan debate (which he regarded as a tempest in a teapot), because he was a mediocre, backward provincial, obsessed with self-aggrandisement and covering up his numerous psychological flaws. But as he bore the legitimacy of an Old Bolshevik, Trotsky argues, these traits made Stalin the ideal expression of the bureaucratic machine that ultimately buried the Russian Revolution.”

The above characterisation of Stalin is absolutely accurate. Stalin had no ideology, other than to gain power and hold onto it. He had a tendency towards suspicion and violence. He was a typical apparatchik – narrow and ignorant, like the people whose interests he represented. The other Bolshevik leaders spent years in Western Europe and spoke foreign languages fluently, and participated personally in the international workers' movement. Stalin spoke no foreign languages and even spoke Russian poorly with a thick Georgian accent. The question arises: how then could he have risen to power?

This apparent irony is explained by Trotsky, not in terms of individual traits but in terms of social relations. A revolutionary epoch demands heroic leaders, great writers and orators, bold thinkers who are able to put into words the unconscious or semi-conscious aspirations of the masses to change society, translating them into timely slogans. It is an age of giants. But a counterrevolutionary period is one of ebb, retreat and demoralisation. Such a period does not require giants but people of a far smaller stature. It is the age of the opportunist, the conformist and the apostate.

In such circumstances, bold visionaries and heroic individuals are no longer required. The mediocrity rules supreme, and Stalin was the supreme mediocrity. Of course, this definition does not exhaust his qualities, or he would never have succeeded in elevating himself above the heads of people who were in every respect his superiors. He also possessed an iron will and determination, a stubborn, indomitable thirst for power and personal advancement and an innate skilfulness in manipulating people, exploiting their weak side, manoeuvring and intriguing.

Such qualities in the context of an advancing Revolution are of only third-rate importance. But in the ebb-tide of the Revolution, they can be utilised to great effect. We see the same phenomenon in every revolution. During the period of revolutionary upswing in France from 1789 to 1794, its leading figures were giants: Mirabeau, Danton, Marat, Robespierre, Saint Juste… But in the period of revolutionary ebb that followed the fall of the Jacobins, the doors were opened to a new breed of opportunists, careerists, functionaries, turncoats and apostates. The character who perfectly characterises this period was Joseph Fouché.

Marx already pointed out that in counterrevolutionary periods, a mediocrity can take power out of the hands of far more capable and far-sighted people. In his masterpiece of historical materialism The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, he explains that Napoleon’s nephew, who Victor Hugo nicknamed Napoleon le Petit (Napoleon the Little), was a mediocrity, completely devoid of ideas or principles, who rose to power at a time when precisely such characteristics were required. Exactly the same can be said of Stalin.

The new school of falsification

There is nowadays a concerted effort to revive the image of Stalin and airbrush his crimes as a barely concealed fig leaf for a defence of the authoritarian regime of Vladimir Putin. Behind the façade of “scholarly objectivity” lurk material interest and a servile attempt to please the latest Master in the Kremlin. The latest “revelations” that arrive every day with tedious regularity from this source should really be issued with a government health warning: something like: the consumption of this material may seriously damage your brain.

This rewriting of history reminds one forcibly of the old methods of the Stalinist bureaucracy which placed history on its head, turned leading figures into non-persons, or demonised them, as in the case of Leon Trotsky, and generally maintained that black was white. The present writings of the enemies of socialism are no different, except that they slander Lenin with the same blind hatred and spitefulness that the Stalinists reserved for Trotsky.

Some of the worst cases of this kind are to be found in Russia. This is not surprising, for two different reasons: firstly, these people have been raised in the Stalinist school of falsification, which based itself on the principle that truth was only an instrument in the service of the ruling elite. The professors, economists and historians were, with a few honourable exceptions, accustomed to adapt their writings to the current Line. The same intellectuals who sang the praises of Trotsky, the founder of the Red Army and leader of the October Revolution, a few years later had no qualms about denouncing him as an agent of Hitler. The same writers who fawned on Joseph Stalin the great Leader and Teacher soon jumped the other way when Nikita Khrushchev discovered the "personality cult". Habits die hard. The methods of intellectual prostitution are the same. Only the Master has changed.

There is also another quite separate reason. Many of the capitalists in Russia not long ago carried a Communist Party card in their pocket and spoke in the name of "socialism". In fact, they had nothing to do with socialism, communism or the working class. They were part of a parasitic ruling caste which lived a life of luxury on the backs of the Soviet workers. Now, with the same cynicism that has always characterised these elements, they have openly gone over to capitalism. But this miraculous transformation cannot be consummated so easily. These people feel a compelling need to justify their apostasy by heaping curses on what they professed to believe in only yesterday. By these means they try to throw dust in the eyes of the masses, while salving their own consciences – always supposing that they possess such a thing. Even the worst scoundrel likes to find some justification for his actions.

Marx Engels Lenin Stalin 1933Marx Engels Lenin Stalin 1933- wikipedia commons

Stalin in 1917

There is not the slightest doubt that in November 1917 the fate of the Russian Revolution was determined by the actions of two men: Lenin and Trotsky, and above all by Lenin. That is why the Bolshevik Party was universally known as the Party of Lenin/Trotsky. A simple glance at any newspaper or periodical of that time – whether Russian or foreign – will confirm that fact.

The role of Stalin in 1917 was entirely secondary, not to say insignificant. A poor writer and worse orator, he was invisible to the broad masses. The name of Stalin in 1917 was known only to a relatively small group of Party activists. Only after Lenin’s death in 1924 was the legend of Stalin the “great leader and teacher” gradually invented. Despite this well-known fact, Stremlin is capable of writing the following:

“Stalin played a key role in agitating for the insurrection as editor of the Bolshevik newspaper Pravda.” This is an astonishing claim. What was Stalin’s role in Pravda? Before Lenin returned to Russia in April, Stalin and Kamenev were the joint editors of the Party’s official organ. The line they took was directly in contradiction to that taken by Lenin.

Far from advocating the taking of power by the working class (summed up in Lenin’s slogan “All power to the Soviets”), Pravda advocated “critical support” for the bourgeois Provisional Government. Lenin’s articles were not published, or published in a mutilated form. When he returned in April Lenin had to wage a furious struggle against Stalin and Kamenev and the other “conciliators” in the Bolshevik leadership. After that Stalin retired to the side-lines, playing no further role of any significance.

Let us call a few witnesses, beginning with the well-known American socialist John Reed, whose book Ten Days that Shook the World is universally considered as one of the classic accounts of the October Revolution. Lenin, wrote a foreword to the book, which we can quote in full:


“With the greatest interest and with never slackening attention I read John Reed’s book, Ten Days that Shook the World. Unreservedly do I recommend it to the workers of the world. Here is a book which I should like to see published in millions of copies and translated into all languages. It gives a truthful and most vivid exposition of the events so significant to the comprehension of what really is the Proletarian Revolution and the Dictatorship of the Proletariat. These problems are widely discussed, but before one can accept or reject these ideas, he must understand the full significance of his decision. John Reed’s book will undoubtedly help to clear this question, which is the fundamental problem of the international labor movement.” (N. Lenin, End of 1919)


Here we have confirmation of the truthfulness of John Reed’s account on the highest authority. We repeat Lenin’s recommendation to anyone who wishes to understand the truth about the October Revolution and the role played in it by the different Bolshevik leaders. Here we confine ourselves to one simple observation.

In the index of names at the end of the book, Lenin is mentioned 62 times, Trotsky 53 times. Stalin’s name is mentioned only twice, and then only as one name on a list of People’s Commissars after the Revolution. About his active participation in the Revolution there is not one single word. That is why the book that was recommended so enthusiastically by Lenin was banned in the Soviet Union for many decades. But John Reed’s silence is no accident. Nor was it an isolated case.

In 1923 A.V. Lunacharsky, the veteran Bolshevik who was the first Minister of Culture and Education of the young Soviet Republic wrote a book that was very well-known at the time called Revolutionary Silhouettes. It consists of a series of pen-portraits of all the best known leaders of the Bolshevik Party in 1917. It included Lenin and Trotsky (in the first place), followed by Zinoviev, Sverdlov, Volodarsky and Uritsky. It also included articles on Plekhanov and Martov who, of course, were not members of the Bolshevik Party. But the name of Stalin is entirely absent. Neither Lunacharsky nor anybody else regarded him as an important leader of the Party at that time.

Stalin’s insignificance in 1917 was obvious to everybody. The Left Menshevik N.N. Sukhanov, who was a member of the Soviet Executive after the February Revolution, recalls the impression made on him by Stalin at their first meeting:


“The Bolshevik party, in spite of the low level of its officer’s corps, had a whole series of most massive figures and able leaders among its ‘generals’. Stalin, however, during his modest activity in the Executive Committee, produced – and not only on me – the impression of a grey blur, looming up now and then dimly and not leaving any trace. There is really nothing more to be said about him.” (N Sukhanov, The Russian Revolution 1917, a personal record, pages 229 -230)

Let us quote again an important source, Bruce Lockhart (there are many, many more), who was an avowed enemy of Bolshevism, a British agent in Russia at the time of the revolution, but also a highly perceptive observer who frequently showed a keen insight into events. In his autobiography, Memoirs of a British Agent, he describes a gathering sometime in early 1918 at which he met a number of members of the Soviet government:

“I also shook hands with a strongly-built man with a sallow face, black moustache, heavy eyebrows, and black hair worn en brosse. I paid little attention to him. He himself said nothing. He did not seem of sufficient importance to include in my gallery of Bolshevik portraits. If he had been announced then to the assembled Party as the successor of Lenin, the delegates would have roared with laughter. The man was the Georgian Djugashvili, known today to the whole world as Stalin, the man of steel.” (Bruce Lockhart, Memoirs of a British agent, page 257)

Need we say more?

The relativity of “depravity”

Stremlin makes repeated references to “new discoveries” allegedly made by “Russian scholars” who have access to the archives. He writes: “Recent scholars have contested the charge that Stalin’s dictatorship has its roots in his character flaws caused by abuse in his childhood.” And again: “Since the opening of the Soviet archives, recent scholars such as Stephen Kotkin have argued that there is no evidence that Stalin’s upbringing was particularly violent by the standards of the time, or that Stalin demonstrated outstanding depravity during the civil war years (in comparison to Lenin and Trotsky).”

By slipping in a comparison with Lenin and Trotsky, Boris Stremlin seeks to imply that they were responsible for “outstanding depravity during the civil war years”. What “depravity” is he referring to? He does not say. He merely drops a hint and invites us to draw our own dark conclusions. Pacifists and moralists consider all wars to be merely an expression of human “depravity”, inasmuch as in wars people kill each other. From the point of view of abstract morality it is easy to agree with such an opinion. Unfortunately, we live in the real world, not having yet arrived at a state of heavenly bliss. And in the real world wars are a fact of life, no matter how much we may deplore the fact.

Wars are about killing people. That we know. But in the annals of war some events stand out as unique examples of barbarity – one might justifiably use the word depravity. Let us consider a couple of interesting examples. From 13 to 15 February 1945, British (and some American) heavy bombers dropped 2,400 tons of high explosives and 1,500 tons of incendiary bombs onto the ancient cathedral city of Dresden in Germany. In just a few hours, around 25,000 to 35,000 civilians, men, women and children, were blown up or incinerated.

Victor Gregg was a British prisoner of war in Dresden that night who was ordered to help with the clear up after the apocalyptic firestorm. His team found a 1,000-person air-raid shelter in the Altstadt. There were no survivors or corpses: just a green-brown liquid with bones sticking out of it. The cowering people had all melted. In areas further from the town centre there were legions of adults shrivelled to three feet in length. Children under the age of three had simply been vaporised.

Hamburg had been similarly consigned to the flames on 25 July the previous year. Nine thousand tons of explosives and incendiaries had flattened eight square miles of the city centre, and the resulting inferno had created an oxygen vacuum that whipped up a 150-mile-an-hour wind burning at 800 Celsius. The death toll was 37,000 people. (By comparison, the atom bomb in Nagasaki killed 40,000 on day one.)

That was horrible, but at least Hamburg, as a port, had some significance as a military target. Dresden had none. This ancient cathedral city had no material role of any sort to play in the closing months of the war. So, what strategic purpose did burning its men, women, old people, and children alive serve? Apparently there was no depravity here, but only the grim necessity of war. That night Mr. Churchill went to bed and slept soundly.

On August 6, 1945 the US dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima in Japan. Three days later a second atomic bomb was dropped on the city of Nagasaki. The bombs reduced Hiroshima, population 350,000, and Nagasaki, 210,000, to smouldering ash and vaporised at least 200,000 civilians. Upwards of another 250,000 were to die from radiation poisoning in later years. According to one of the first doctors to arrive in Hiroshima after the blast, “Tremendous numbers of unidentified corpses were piled up and cremated on the spot. The injured and irradiated continued to die. Day and night in every corner of the city, corpses are piled upon the corpses and burned.” The real number of victims will never be known.

Attempts have been made to justify these acts by claiming that they hastened Japan’s surrender and shortened the war, saving the lives of American soldiers. These arguments do not withstand the slightest scrutiny. The victims of this horror were not soldiers but defenceless men, women and children. Neither Hiroshima nor Nagasaki had the least value from a military point of view. The aim of these attacks was to create an atmosphere of terror. That was an act of the purest cynicism. A civilian team, commissioned by Truman, including John K Galbraith interviewed more than 400 US officers and examined all the relevant Japanese military documents, reported in July 1946:

“Based on a detailed investigation of all the facts and supported by the testimony of the surviving Japanese leaders involved, it is the survey’s opinion that… Japan would have surrendered even if the atomic bombs had not been dropped, even if Russia had not entered the war and even if no invasion had been planned or contemplated.” (My emphasis, AW)

The main aim of President Truman was to demonstrate to the Soviet Union that the USA now possessed a powerful new weapon. Here we have an excellent example of the depravity of great power politics. But our modern historians prefer to dwell on the alleged “excesses” of Lenin and Trotsky in the Civil War, when Soviet Russia was invaded by 21 armies of foreign intervention. The Revolution lacked an army to defend itself. The situation was saved when Trotsky built the Red Army, starting from scratch, which defeated the counterrevolutionaries and drove out the imperialist aggressors.

The real reason for this feigned moral outrage is not difficult to see. In the course of over two thousand years there have been many slave revolts. Every one of them was put down in blood. After the defeat of Spartacus by the Roman army, thousands of slaves were crucified along the Appian Way. After the defeat of the Paris Commune of 1871 30,000 working class men and women were slaughtered by the counterrevolution. If this is not depravity, one wonders what is. The reason why our modern bourgeois historians cannot forgive Lenin and Trotsky is that in Russia, for once, the slaves armed themselves, fought and won.

The hatred of the Soviet Union shared by all those whose careers, salaries and profits derived from the existing order based on rent, interest and profit, is not hard to understand. It had nothing to do with the totalitarian regime of Stalin. The same "friends of democracy" had no scruples about praising dictatorial regimes when it suited their interests to do so. The "democratic" British ruling class was quite happy to see Hitler coming to power, as long as he put down the German workers and directed his attentions to the East.

Winston Churchill and other representatives of the British ruling class expressed their fervent admiration for Mussolini and Franco, right up to 1939. In the period after 1945, the Western "democracies", in the first instance the USA, actively backed every monstrous dictatorship, from Somoza to Pinochet, from the Argentine junta to the Indonesian butcher Suharto who climbed to power over the corpses of a million people with the active support of the CIA. The leaders of the Western democracies grovel before the blood-soaked regime of Saudi Arabia that tortures, murders, flogs and crucifies its own citizens. The list of these barbarities is endless.

From the standpoint of imperialism, such regimes were and are perfectly acceptable, provided they based themselves on private ownership of the land, banks and big monopolies. Their implacable hostility to the Soviet Union was not, then, based on any love of freedom, but on naked class interest. They hated the USSR, not for what was bad in it, but precisely for what was positive and progressive. They objected, not to Stalin's dictatorship (on the contrary, the crimes of Stalinism suited them very well as a convenient means of blackening the name of socialism in the West), but to the nationalised property forms which were all that remained of the gains of October.

Stalin’s sadism

Stremlin attributes to Trotsky the view that “Stalin’s violence was driven by emotional insecurities with respect to his intellectual and spiritual betters. Later Stalinist policies that bore great human cost — collectivisation and the Great Terror — were products of amoral calculation, not neuroses or paranoia.”

That Stalin was in fact a vicious sadist cannot be seriously doubted. It is confirmed by a mountain of evidence that no amount of revisionist history can gainsay. The main motive of the Purge Trials was to liquidate the Bolshevik Party, to wipe out the entire generation of Old Bolsheviks and thus to consolidate the rule of the bureaucracy. Anyone who could remember the old democratic and internationalist traditions of Leninism was seen as a danger. Like any common criminal Stalin understood the need to eliminate all witnesses.

But there was also a personal motive. Stalin was a mediocrity who could not stand comparison with the Old Bolshevik leaders. Compared with Bukharin, Kamenev and even Zinoviev, let alone a genius like Trotsky, he was a nonentity. And he knew it. Therefore he entertained feelings of revenge towards the entire generation of Old Bolsheviks. Stalin was a sadist who took a personal interest in tormenting his victims. He brought to Moscow the primitive methods of the Georgian blood feud, in which not only enemies had to be killed but their families also. He once stated: "There is nothing sweeter in the world than to plan revenge on an enemy, see it carried out, and then retire peacefully to bed."

Stalin had a very simple recipe for the interrogation of prisoners: "Beat, beat and beat again." At the time of the first trials the chief of the OGPU-NKVD was Genrykh Yagoda. He carried out Stalin's directives, but not enthusiastically enough for the Leader. Stalin was furious because Yagoda had not obtained confessions to the murder of Kirov from Kamenev and Zinoviev in the 1936 trial. He called him in and said:

"You work poorly, Genrykh Grigorievich. I already know for a fact that Kirov was murdered on instructions from Zinoviev and Kamenev, but so far you have not been able to prove it! You have to torture them until they finally tell the truth and reveal all their connections." (Anna Larina, This I cannot Forget, p. 94)

In Stalin’s concentration camps, millions were starved and worked to death. Between 1929 and 1934 the average life expectancy was less than two years. Yet the Boss complained that conditions in the camps were too comfortable: they were "like health resorts". Stalin personally checked the list of the victims and decided who would live or die. Out of a total of about 700,000 cases, he personally signed 400 lists, with a total of 40,000 people. On these lists were the names of all of Lenin's principal lieutenants and comrades-in-arms.

Stalin’s cruelty was revealed when his archives were opened, showing that he drew cartoons depicting the torture of his future victims. Boris Ilizarov, a historian and member of the Russian Academy of sciences has published the sketches that Stalin drew during the long meetings of the Politburo to amuse himself in this way. One of these grotesque cartoons from 1930 depicts the then finance minister Nicolai Bryukhanov hanging from a rope by his genitals:

“The sketch was found with a note written and signed by Stalin in which the tyrant made no effort to disguise his pleasure at the fate he had in mind for Bryukhanov, a Politburo member for four years.

“Under the heading ‘Special File’ it read: ‘To all members of the Politburo, for all his present and future sins, Bryukhanov should be hung by his balls. If they hold up he should be considered not guilty as if in a court of law. If they give away he should be drowned in a river.

“Bryukhanov was executed on Stalin’s orders in 1938 on trumped up charges. He was rehabilitated in 1956, three years after Stalin’s death.” (The Sunday Times, 8 July, 2001)

Are there some circumstances in Stalin’s early life that suggest certain tendencies towards revengefulness, envy and a cruel and sadistic streak from an early age? Yes, there are many, and the records were painstakingly analysed by Trotsky with a wealth of documentary evidence, drawn both from his personal archives and many other sources, including the memoirs of Bolsheviks, Stalinists, Mensheviks and particularly Georgian revolutionaries who knew the man intimately.

But is Stremlin right to say that Trotsky attributes the horrors of the Stalinist dictatorship to his childhood experiences. That is simply ridiculous. Either he has not read the book, or he has not understood a single word he has read. Trotsky does not maintain that Stalin’s bloody dictatorship was the product of an unhappy childhood, any more than Hitler’s regime was the product of his. Taken in isolation these tendencies cannot have a decisive significance.

Not every child who is abused by a drunken father becomes a sadistic dictator, just as not every unsuccessful artist, resentful at his rejection by Viennese society, becomes Adolf Hitler. For such transformations to occur, great historic events and social convulsions are necessary. In the case of Hitler it was Germany’s economic collapse following the Wall Street Crash that provided him with an opportunity to lead a mass movement of the ruined petty bourgeois and declassed lumpenproletariat.

In the case of Stalin it was the ebb of the movement that followed the Russian Revolution, the exhaustion of the masses following the great exertions of the War, Revolution and Civil War and the isolation of the Revolution in conditions of frightful backwardness and poverty that led to the rise of a privileged bureaucracy. The millions of officials that elbowed the workers aside hardened into a privileged caste. These upstarts needed a Leader who would defend their interests. But this Leader had to be a man with revolutionary credentials – a Bolshevik with a solid pedigree. “Cometh the moment, cometh the Man,” as they say. The Soviet bureaucracy found its representative in Joseph Djugashvili, known to us as Stalin.

RIAN archive 377427 Stalin and famous collective farmers Demchenko and Angelina at the X Congress of the Young Communist LeagueStalin and famous collective farmers Demchenko and Angelina at the X Congress of the Young Communist League- wikipedia commons

The national question

Stremlin tried to pick holes in Trotsky’s argument, for example on the question as to whether Stalin was in fact the author of the book on the national question that was published under his name:


“Neither has Trotsky’s contention that Stalin’s sole theoretical contribution, Marxism and the National Question, was, in fact, written by Lenin, found substantial support: today, the overwhelming consensus is that the book was actually authored by Stalin, who, despite misgivings, implemented its analysis in the course of establishing the Soviet Union as a multinational ‘affirmative action empire’.”


Without any attempt to back this up with facts Stremlin refers vaguely to an alleged “overwhelming consensus” Consensus of whom? Where? When? Nobody knows, except Stremlin, and that is not too sure, either. Despite Stremlin’s confident claim, it was common knowledge among Bolshevik activists at the time of the Revolution that the work referred to was in fact the work of Lenin (and in part Bukharin).

At that time (1913) Lenin was living in Polish exile in Cracow and was almost completely absorbed with his important theoretical work on the national question. He was keen to get Stalin, a Georgian, to participate in this work, for obvious reasons and gave him intensive briefings on the question. All the ideas on the national question came from Lenin. Lenin encouraged Stalin to go to Vienna to get the necessary archive material for a lengthy article.

Here we meet the first problem. Stalin did not know German or any other foreign language. But all the material he needed was in German, which he could not read. He had to rely on Bukharin, who, unlike Stalin, had a head for theory, knew languages, knew the literature of the subject, knew how to use documents. Bukharin therefore also had a hand in the writing of this work, as is shown also by its academic and rather pedantic style.

Stalin returned with his material to Cracow. Lenin edited and revised the work from top to bottom. As Trotsky remarks:

“The stamp of his thought and the traces of his pen are readily discoverable on every page. Certain phrases, mechanically incorporated by the author, or certain lines, obviously written in by the editor, seem unexpected or incomprehensible without reference to the corresponding works of Lenin...”

There is one interesting detail that would certainly suggest a serious doubt about the authorship of this work. Marxism and the National Question was not included in any one- or two-volume Russian version of Stalin's Selected Works (Voprosy Leninizma), which first appeared in 1926. This is very strange, since it was virtually the only theoretical work of any importance attributed to Stalin up to that time. The work was finally reprinted as the lead essay in a 1934 Russian topical collection, Markizm i natsional'no-kolonial'nyi vopros, and its English translations in the following year.

Stremlin contradicts himself in a most glaring manner when he claims that “the book was actually authored by Stalin, who, despite misgivings, implemented its analysis in the course of establishing the Soviet Union”. If Stalin was really the author of this book, why should he have any “misgivings” about its content? What were these mysterious misgivings that Stalin was supposed to have had about what was supposed to be his own ideas? Yet again, Boris does not enlighten us.

The truth is that the ideas that are (more or less correctly) expressed in Marxism and the National Question were 100 percent the ideas of Lenin. Stalin had a very poor understanding of Marxism in general and of Lenin’s ideas in particular. While grudgingly accepting the political authority of Lenin he never really accepted those ideas. That is the explanation of his “misgivings” about Lenin’s position on the national question – and many other questions besides.

A fact that Boris Stremlin strenuously avoids mentioning is that Lenin broke with Stalin precisely on the national question. During his final illness, Lenin became aware of serious deviations in the Party leadership. Despite the strenuous attempts of Stalin to isolate him from reality, Lenin learned of the scandalous conduct of Stalin and his allies, Dzerzhinsky and Ordzhonikidze in Georgia. Using bureaucratic methods, they had trampled over the national sentiments of the people and oppressed the Georgian Bolsheviks, even using physical violence against Party leaders.

When Lenin found out about this he was furious and demanded the expulsion of Ordzhonikidze, Stalin’s henchman, from the Party. He wrote a note addressed to Mdivani, the leader of the Georgian Communist Party, promising the Georgian Bolsheviks his full support against Stalin, Dzerzhinsky, and Ordzhonikidze. From his deathbed, Lenin was preparing a struggle against Stalin (his secretary said “Vladimir Ilyich is preparing a bombshell for Stalin) and formed a bloc with Trotsky.

But soon after this Lenin’s health suddenly deteriorated, making it impossible for him to attend the Party Congress. That changed the course of history.

General Secretary

Stremlin asserts that

“Lenin created the powerful post of party general secretary specifically for Stalin at the time when he became chronically ill, while he kept Trotsky from the coveted post of top economic manager, suggests that Trotsky’s evaluation of Stalin’s status must be taken with a grain of salt.”

This is false from start to finish. To begin with during Lenin’s lifetime the post of general secretary was not at all the kind of leading position that Stremlin imagines. It was in fact an organizational post that undoubtedly had a certain importance, but it was by no means a leading political post. The fact that Lenin himself never occupied that position is sufficiently eloquent in that respect.

Far from creating this post especially for Stalin, Lenin was opposed to Stalin taking it, commenting that “this cook will serve only peppery dishes”. He eventually gave way under pressure from Zinoviev who was attempting to form a bloc with Stalin against Trotsky. But his doubts about Stalin grew stronger as he became aware of the latter’s intrigues and manoeuvres, leading to a final break in 1923 when Lenin in his last letters that became known as the Suppressed Testament, demanded Stalin’s removal as general secretary, accusing him of rudeness and disloyalty.

In his last letter Lenin broke off all personal and comradely relations with Stalin. I do not know of any other example of Lenin taking such a drastic step. Despite the urgent demands of Lenin’s widow Krupskaya, Stalin and his cronies refused to hand Lenin’s Testament to the Party. For decades it remained hidden in the Party archives, until in 1956 Nikita Khrushchev took it out as part of his campaign of “de-Stalinization”.

Incredibly, Stremlin attempts to cast doubt on the authenticity of Lenin’s Testament. For this purpose he has recourse to his usual source: the so-called “scholars” in Putin’s Russia who have made lucrative careers from slandering the Old Bolsheviks:

“Russian scholar Valentin Sakharov has suggested that Lenin’s famous ‘testament’ of 1923, in which he recommended Stalin’s removal for being overly rude, may have been written by Lenin’s wife Nadezhda Krupskaya, because Lenin was already too incapacitated by that time."

It is frankly astonishing that Stremlin repeats the disgusting calumny, first put into circulation by the Stalinists in the 1920s, that Lenin’s widow and faithful comrade Nadezhda Krupskaya had invented the Testament. This is yet another example of the depths to which the “modern Russian scholars” are prepared to sink in their repulsive attempts to restore the image of Stalin, and thereby curry favour with Putin and the Kremlin gang and the Russian oligarchy whose interests it defends.

We note that the “scholarly” Sakharov covers his rear end by using the sly words “may have”. This cowardly evasion is quite sufficient to expose a dishonest and unscrupulous method. Krupskaya, who devoted her entire life to the selfless service of Lenin and the Bolshevik Party, would never have betrayed him on his death bed in such a vile way as is insinuated by Sakharov. But the latter has absolutely no scruples about betraying the historical truth for his own cynical purposes. And there is no “may have” about it.

As if embarrassed by his own source, Stremlin opens the very next sentence with a shamefaced qualification: “Even if Sakharov turns out to be wrong…” But this method is hardly satisfactory. First he quotes Sakharov, holding him up as a “Russian scholar”, and therefore a man of the most distinguished and unimpeachable qualifications (i.e. a man who must be believed). The quote, however, turns out to be a completely worthless piece of speculation (“may have”) with not a shred of evidence to back it up. And therefore Boris drops a hint that his distinguished and unimpeachable “Russian scholar” may be wrong.

This is called in the trade facing all ways at once. You see, once Sakharov’s slander has been stated (from an absolutely unimpeachable source) and clearly registered in the reader’s mind as a fact (“Lenin’s Testament was really a forgery by his widow!”), one can then quietly sidle away from the statement, as if it had never been made. It is like a little boy who throws a stone and then hides his hand behind his back.

Socialism in one country

Stremlin's failure to grasp what Trotsky stood for is exposed by the statement that “the Bolshevik leadership, along with Trotsky, was less concerned with checking Stalin than with pursuing the pipe dream of fomenting a revolution in Germany.” This goes to the heart of the whole question. The main cause of the bureaucratic degeneration of the Soviet state was the isolation of the revolution in conditions of extreme backwardness. Long ago Marx wrote in The German Ideology that where poverty is general “all the old crap revives”. By this he meant the evils of inequality, corruption, bureaucracy and privilege.

“Similarly, contra Trotsky, who regards Stalin’s proposal to build socialism in one country a laughable distortion of Marxism, Stalin’s fundamental linkage between revolution and war served as the foundation of Soviet geopolitics.”

These are the words of Boris Stremlin. But what was the real meaning of the theory of socialism in one country?

Up until 1924 it was accepted by every Bolshevik that the material conditions for socialism were absent in Russia. The idea of socialism in one country first made its appearance in 1924 – after Lenin’s death. That is no accident. This notion is so alien to Marxism that Stalin would never have dared to publish it in Lenin’s lifetime. Indeed he contradicted it in dozens of speeches and articles. Lenin and Trotsky knew very well that the material conditions for socialism were absent in Russia. Before 1924 nobody questioned this elementary proposition. The Bolsheviks based themselves on the perspective of the extension of the revolution to the advanced capitalist countries of Europe, especially Germany. If the German revolution had succeeded – which it could have in 1923 – the entire situation in Russia would have been different.

On the basis of a socialist federation, uniting the colossal productive potential of Germany with the immense reserves of raw materials and manpower of Russia, the material conditions of the masses would have been transformed. Under such conditions the rise of the bureaucracy would have been halted, and the Stalin faction would not have been able to seize power. The morale of the Soviet working class would have been boosted and its faith in the world revolution restored.

We must remember that in the period 1923-9, the process of bureaucratic degeneration was by no means consolidated. This fact was reflected in the series of zigzags that characterised the policies of Stalin and his faction both in home and foreign policy throughout this period. In 1923-28, Stalin adopted a right-wing policy, characterised by an adaptation to the kulaks (rich peasants) and NEPmen (speculators) in Russia and an adaptation to the reformists and colonial bourgeoisie in foreign policy. This placed the Revolution in grave danger. Internally, it encouraged the kulaks and other bourgeois elements at the expense of the workers. Externally, it led the Communist International to one defeat after another.

It was not that Stalin consciously organized the defeat of the German Revolution in 1923, or that of the Chinese Revolution in 1923-7. On the contrary, he desired the success of these revolutions. But the right-wing opportunist policies that he had imposed on the Communist International in the name of Socialism in One Country guaranteed defeat in each case.

Dialectically, cause becomes effect and vice-versa. The isolation of the Russian Revolution was the ultimate cause of the rise of the bureaucracy and the Stalin faction. The false policies of the latter produced the defeat of the German and Chinese Revolutions (and other defeats in Estonia, Bulgaria, Britain, etc.). These defeats further isolated the Revolution and caused deep demoralisation of the Soviet workers, who lost all hope that the European workers would come to their aid.

This led to a consolidation of the bureaucracy and Stalinism, which was only the political expression of the material interests of the bureaucracy. This, in turn, led to further defeats of the international revolution (Germany, Spain), which prepared the ground for the Second World War that placed the USSR in extreme danger.

Socialism is the future!

Finally we come to the essence of the question. At the end of his article Boris Stremlin asks a very pertinent question: “Does picking through these old quarrels have contemporary relevance?” And he answers as follows:

“We have now entered a period of political and economic instability in which mainstream political forces have greatly weakened. Anxieties regarding socioeconomic polarisation are on the rise, while socialist ideas are experiencing a bit of a renaissance among the youth after having been consigned to the ash heap of history following the Soviet collapse. Some politicians, including Britain’s Jeremy Corbyn and France’s Jean-Luc Mélenchon, with roots in the Trotskyist tradition, have gained prominence of late, though it is still hard to speak of Trotskyism as a force in global politics. Meanwhile, this insurgent upsurge denotes a retreat in the capacity of the bloc of developed Western states to maintain its monopoly over managing world affairs.”

Ever since the crisis of 2008 the political and social equilibrium has been destroyed. The fundamental reason for this: the crisis of 2008 was completely different from any other crisis, not a normal cyclical crisis, but a reflection of the organic crisis of capitalism. Prior to 2008, capitalism not only reached its limits but went far beyond its limits. The crisis was a reflection of this fact. Now the entire process has gone into reverse. And millions of people are becoming conscious of the need for a fundamental change in society.

stalin book front coverTrotsky's 'Stalin' Book-front coverThe masses are discontented with the existing conditions, the existing society and the existing politics. That can be seen everywhere – from Pakistan to France, from Brazil to Britain. In Britain we see the rise of Jeremy Corbyn and in France the support for Mélenchon. Even in the United States, it can be seen, although expressed in a distorted and reactionary manner. The victory of Donald Trump signified a massive vote of no confidence in the old political set up. Trump promised a change, although, of course, there will be no real change. But the support for Bernie Sanders showed huge potential support for socialist ideas in the most powerful capitalist country on earth.

All this is a cause for concern for the ruling class and its ideological defenders like Boris Stremlin. He is right to be concerned. The capitalist system is in crisis everywhere. It has long since lost any right to exist that it once may have had. The future belongs to socialism, and the most advanced and relevant ideas of our epoch are the ideas of Marx, Engels, Lenin and that great revolutionary and martyr of the working class, Leon Trotsky.

What Stremlin calls “picking through these old quarrels” we call learning the lessons of history. And as the American philosopher George Santayana once said: he who does not learn from history will be doomed to repeat it. Let the ideological defenders of capitalism wail and complain. We remain supremely confident of the ultimate victory of socialism. The future will be ours!

Trotsky's Stalin avaliable from WellRed Books