Stalin: 50 years after the death of a tyrant


This is the last part of the article on Stalin's death. Some university professors try to interpret historical processes as the result of "good" or "bad" individuals. Thus they argue that Stalin (and Hitler, too) was "uniquely evil". This is a purely subjective interpretation of history. History cannot be explained in terms of individual personalities, although the individual can certainly play an important role in history.

The role of the individual in history

The anniversary of Stalin's death has been the occasion for a flood of anti-Soviet and anti-socialist propaganda. The enemies of socialism are determined to convince people that there is no difference between Lenin and Stalin and that Stalinism and Communism are the same.

Though many of these are university professors with strings of letters after their name, their supposedly "scientific" studies are devoid of any scientific content. This is not science but the crudest type of propaganda masquerading under the banner of a fictitious "objectivity".

They try to interpret historical processes as the result of "good" or "bad" individuals. Thus they argue that Stalin (and Hitler, too) was "uniquely evil". This is a purely subjective interpretation of history. It reduces history to a series of unpredictable accidents, since it was a matter of accident that Stalin was born when he was. Such a version of history would make a scientific study of cause and effect impossible. Moreover, it does not explain what made a particular historical figure "uniquely bad" or, for that matter "uniquely good".

Such explanations really explain nothing. History cannot be explained in terms of individual personalities, although the individual can certainly play an important role in history. If, instead of being "uniquely evil", Stalin had been "uniquely good", would that have made a fundamental difference to the fate of the USSR? At this point we leave behind the realm of history and enter that of hagiography, mysticism and magic.

The struggle between Stalin and Trotsky was not just a duel between two individuals. It was a reflection of the existing class balance of forces in Russia, once the revolution was isolated in conditions of backwardness. Stalin did not represent just himself: he was the political representative of the bureaucracy that felt itself to be on the upswing, while the working class, tired out by long years of war and revolution was gradually falling into a state of apathy and indifference. It is this class balance of forces that decided the outcome, not the individual personality of the participants.

This does not mean that the personal qualities of the protagonists in the class struggle are a matter of indifference. Nor is this an accidental question. Every class seeks out representatives in its own image. Stalin had many of the attributes of the people he representatives: his narrow, provincial mentality, his strong inclination to resolving all questions by administrative means (including expulsions, arrests and shootings), his general lack of culture - all these features are highly characteristic of the psychology of any functionary.

Revolution and reaction

We can go further and say that every historical period produces characters in its own image. This has a perfectly rational basis. Certain objective situations favour the rise of a particular kind of person and discourages others. It is a kind of historical version of natural selection. There are an infinite number of genetic mutations going on all the time. Most mutations are either harmful or neutral. They do not find a suitable environment and soon disappear. But occasionally a genetic modification proves useful and then it can reproduce itself and flourish.

A revolutionary period demands heroes, and in such circumstances heroes are always found. There is nothing magical about this. Among the millions of people in society there are always a considerable number of individuals with extraordinary talents who never had a chance to put their potential to good use. In the pre-Revolutionary armies of both 18th century France and 20th century Russia there were junior officers and NCOs with enormous ability who were led by incompetent senior officers. Without the Revolution they would never have had a chance to show what they were capable of. Men like Carnot and Tukhachevsky rose on the crest of the revolutionary wave. And what was true in the military sphere was equally true in other spheres of social and cultural life.

In the period of the downswing of the Revolution, when the revolutionary impulse of the masses has exhausted itself, matters are entirely different. Periods of reaction do not require giants but pygmies. They do not encourage strikingly new and original ideas or creative thinkers but rather conformists and bureaucrats. Here the mediocrity is king. For there are periods in history when mediocrity is necessary.

Napoleon Bonaparte, for all his showy pretentiousness, was no genius. He was an able military commander because he had an excellent school in the revolutionary armies. But he was not an original thinker like Carnot, from whom he took all his ideas. He inherited the army created by Carnot, and used it well. But Bonaparte is the product, not of the Revolution but of its decay. It would, of course, be unjust to describe Napoleon Bonaparte as a mediocrity. The flames of the Revolution still burned sufficiently brightly to provide him with a spark of life. The French bourgeoisie was still playing a relatively progressive role and regarded itself as the standard-bearer of progress in all Europe. In a distorted way, the armies of Napoleon carried the flame of Revolution to other countries.

But what can one say about his nephew, the man who called himself Napoleon III? This creature came to power after the defeat of the Revolution of 1848. Here we have mediocrity personified. The French bourgeoisie had already exhausted its progressive role and found itself in mortal combat with the young and revolutionary French proletariat. The two classes confronted each other on the barricades and fought each other to a standstill. The result was a deadlock, an impasse in which neither class could score a decisive victory over the other. In such circumstances, as Marx explains in his masterpiece The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, the state, as armed bodies of men, can life itself above the classes and acquire a large amount of independence. This is the phenomenon we call Bonapartism.

There were many men in France at that time who were better, more intelligent, more far-sighted and more courageous than Louis Bonaparte. But he triumphed over all of them. He had the name of Bonaparte, which helped him to gain the loyalty of the peasantry and the peasant army, that classical tool of Bonapartism. The fact that underneath the cloak of the Emperor was a pitiful mediocrity was irrelevant. The counterrevolution succeeded because of a particular balance of class forces, and not because of the genius of "Napoleon the Lesser". As Marx commented, history repeats itself, first as tragedy then as farce. Louis Bonaparte was the perfect actor for this particular drama.

The French and Russian Revolutions

The inner dynamics of the Russian Revolution were quite similar, though the class content was completely different. It is scarcely worth recalling that the Russian Revolution was a proletarian revolution, the French Revolution was a bourgeois revolution. It is clear that, as well as similarities, there are important differences. One of the differences is that the bourgeois revolution can triumph far more easily than the socialist revolution. The reason for this is to be found in the nature of capitalism as an economic system: it functions generally in an automatic way through the mechanism of the market. It requires no particular conscious intervention in order to exist.

By contrast socialism presupposes the conscious running of society by men and women. A nationalised planned economy requires a plan that must be drawn up and carried into practice with the conscious intervention of the masses themselves. That is why democracy is the fundamental condition for socialism: socialism is democratic or it is nothing.

This is also true of the way in which socialism is brought into being. The bourgeoisie did not need a scientific doctrine in order to overthrow feudalism. On the contrary, it had to base itself on illusions - that it was going to introduce the Kingdom of God on earth (Cromwell) or the Kingdom of Reason (Robespierre) - in order to inspire the property less masses to fight for it. The fact that the bourgeois themselves actually believed these illusions is another matter. One must always distinguish between what men and women think about themselves and what they are in fact.

The socialist revolution presupposes the conscious movement of the working class to take control of society. But the working class has different layers, which draw the necessary conclusions at different tempos and at different times. The role of the advanced guard is of fundamental importance. And the organisation of the advanced guard into a revolutionary party based on a scientific doctrine that enables it to understand what is necessary to achieve its objectives is a precondition for its success.

Contrary to the slanders of the enemies of Bolshevism, Lenin never set out to substitute the Party for the class. The whole history of the Russian Revolution is proof of this. The task of the Party was to win over a majority of the working class and poor peasants by patient work, agitation, organisation and explanation. In the course of 1917 the Bolshevik Party succeeded brilliantly in this. Only after they had won decisive majorities in the soviets (workers' and soldiers' councils) did they move to take power in October (November in the modern calendar).

The rise and fall of the Revolution

This is not the place to deal with the Revolution, which we have done elsewhere (See Alan Woods, Bolshevism, the Road to Revolution). Suffice it to say that in its upswing, the Revolution attracted to its side all that was alive, healthy and vibrant in Russian society. Here was a galaxy of human talent the like of which has never been seen in history. And at the head of this gigantic work of social emancipation stood men and women who were giants: Lenin and Trotsky, those two great geniuses of the revolutionary movement, and also many other talented people: Rakovsky, Bukharin, Kamenev, Zinoviev, Radek, and others.

It is no accident that all these people were killed during the Purges that were, in Trotsky's words, Stalin's one-sided civil war against Bolshevism. In the period of ebb, when the working class, exhausted and hungry, fell into a state of disappointment and apathy, another kind of person found encouragement: the opportunists, careerists and social climbers of all sorts. People like Vyshinsky, the Prosecutor in Stalin's Purge Trials, who had fought the Bolsheviks during the Revolution, now changed their shirts and climbed on the bandwagon.

We can mention in passing that there were exact analogies in the French Revolution. The classic example is Joseph Fouche, the former extreme Jacobin terrorist who became in turn the servant of Bonapartism and the Bourbon reaction. Earlier still in the English revolution we had similar cases. One of them is recalled in the popular song The Vicar of Bray, a real character who changed his religion on a regular basis according to the religious persuasion of whatever monarch was in power.

Every one of these people were mediocrities and second-raters, men and women of no fixed belief or principle, who were attracted to the Party only because it was in power. Out of such human dust are the forces of Thermidorian Reaction formed. And at the head of these elements stood a man whose personal and political traits perfectly reflected their aspirations and needs.

Stalin's particular personality and cast of mind undoubtedly played a role in shaping events in the period of the downswing of the Revolution. He did not, however, cause the downswing or the bureaucratic reaction against October. These were rooted in the objective situation, nationally and internationally. But he certainly influenced the specific forms in which these processes worked themselves out.

Not any functionary could be a Stalin, but we can find a little bit of Stalin lodged in every functionary, and the caste of Soviet officials that pushed the working class to one side and clambered to power in the period of decline and exhaustion of the revolution recognised in Stalin their own image and soul. The hero-worship of Stalin was at bottom the bureaucracy worshipping itself.

Of course, this is an over-simplification. Stalin had many traits that were peculiar and exclusive to himself. His strong inclination towards violence, his rudeness, his total lack of any human or moral scruples - these are the features by which he is most readily identified. Yet on closer inspection even these features can be explained in historical and class terms. Though we must look for their origins in the field of individual psychology (which lies outside the scope of the present article), the way in which these tendencies were manifested in the events described above do not belong to the realm of psychology, but to history, politics and sociology.

Stalin and the bureaucracy

It is said that before she died Stalin's mother told him that it would have been better if he had become a priest. We do not know if this story is true and it is not possible to know what sort of a priest Joseph Vissionarovich would have made. But it is clear that the above-mentioned tendencies would not have been manifested in the same way and, lacking the broad field in which to work themselves out, would have not led to the deaths of millions of people.

Stalin became transformed from a mediocre revolutionary bureaucrat into a monster. This did not happen all at once, and Stalin did not plan or desire such a result. In fact, if he had realised at the beginning where this would lead to, he would in all likelihood have been horrified and changed course. But once Stalin had been elevated to the rank of dictator by the efforts of the rising bureaucratic caste, those tendencies that were merely latent within him, grew into a monstrous power.

What force lay behind this transformation? The millions of Soviet officials who were struggling for their "place in the sun", the mad scramble for the division of the fruits of power, the creature comforts, the apartments and dachas, the little (and not so little) luxuries in life, the cars with chauffeurs, the servants, the medals, the prestige, even such things as not having to stand in queues - now these are things worth fighting for.

The Bolsheviks did not fight for a comfortable life. If they fought for a better world, or a "happy life" it was not for them as individuals but for the working class as a whole. By contrast, the slogan of every opportunist Labour leader is: "I am in favour of the emancipation of the working class - one by one, commencing with myself."

In the Labour and trade union movement we see this every day: certain officials get into positions that give them certain privileges and high incomes, and how they fight to hold onto these positions! With what iron determination! If only they fought with equal determination to defend the living standards of the workers who elected them, how splendid it would be!

Trotsky once likened a workers state to a trade union that has taken power. If the officials in a union can rise above the membership and acquire privileges, how much greater is the danger in a workers state. Marx explained long ago that the state has a tendency to raise itself above society, to alienate itself from society, and there is no law that says that such a thing cannot happen in a workers state.

Does this mean that this is inevitable? Not at all! Not every trade union official is corrupt, and if this were inevitable we would have sunk long ago into a putrid morass. But it is not so, and as a matter of fact it is perfectly possible for the working class to control its leaders. Lenin's programme - the 1919 Party Programme laid down all that was necessary to do this. Only the crushing backwardness of Russian society at that time prevented Lenin from succeeding.

Stalin's character is no more than a reflection of this general Asiatic backwardness in a distilled and extreme form. The fanatical zeal with which he persecuted and exterminated the Old Bolsheviks reflected something more than his desire for personal revenge. It represented the fury with which the petty bourgeois officials reacted against the storm and stress of the revolution, their ardent desire for "the happy life" for themselves and their families.

For this generation of careerists and social climbers, everything associated with the Bolshevik past was a reminder of the old principles of workers democracy and egalitarianism. They saw this as an obstacle in the path to "the happy life" and were determined to smash through it. If that meant also to smash through human bodies and nervous tissue, then so be it. Stalin's ruthlessness was the perfect expression of this mood.

The role of the individual in history

Men and women make their own history, as Marx explained long ago. But in making history they are not free agents as idealists imagine. If Stalin had never existed some other figure would have occupied his position. The difference would have been one of degree, but the general outcome could have been no different. Once the revolution was isolated in conditions of extreme backwardness, the process of degeneration was inevitable.

It is true that Stalin's peculiar character gave the bureaucratic counterrevolution a particularly barbaric character. But Stalin did not create either the bureaucracy or the counterrevolution. They created him. Once installed in a position of absolute power, he interacted on the process, imparting to it a particularly bloody and ferocious character. For this, the name of Stalin will forever be branded with the mark of iniquity. But it would be quite wrong to assume that all that occurred was merely the result of the wickedness of a single individual.

There are periods in history when a peculiar concatenation of circumstances arises as the result of the previous course of development in which the outcome of events can be decided even by a single individual. Such was the situation in October (November) 1917 in Russia. The actions of the Bolshevik Party were decisive in carrying through the revolution. And ultimately that depended on the leadership of Lenin and Trotsky.

But when the flood tide of the revolution ebbed, neither Lenin nor Trotsky could prevent it. Of course, it is possible to speculate about possible variants. If Lenin had lived a few more years it could have made an important difference to the Communist International. If the Chinese Revolution of 1923-7 had triumphed, the process of bureaucratisation would have been set back and the working class encouraged. On the other hand, Krupskaya herself was of the opinion that if Lenin had been alive in 1926 he would have been in one of Stalin's prisons.

In the period of the Left Opposition, Trotsky was well aware that they were going to be defeated. But he was trying to lay down a tradition and a banner for the future. When Kamenev and Zinoviev capitulated to Stalin they thought they were being clever. We are smarter than Stalin, they reasoned, we can outwit him when conditions change. All we have to do is to stage a tactical retreat and make a few concessions. In the end, their "tactical concessions" led to political and then actual death. Who remembers today the ideas of Kamenev and Zinoviev, or for that matter Bukharin? They have left nothing behind. But the Marxist-Leninists of the 21st century stand firmly on the solid ideological foundations left behind by Lev Davidovich Trotsky.

Fatalism, scepticism and revolution

Individuals, whether uniquely bad or uniquely good, wise or stupid, brave or cowardly, cannot determine the fundamental processes of history. Under certain conditions, however, they can modify the forms under which those processes take place. By interacting on events, they may retard or accelerate the underlying tendencies, but not substantially change them. Such a deterministic doctrine may seem to lead to fatalism and passivity, but that is not at all true.

The followers of Calvin in the period of the Reformation believed fervently in the doctrine of Predestination, but that did not prevent them from being active revolutionaries. Once they decided that they were fighting on the side of Good against Evil, they fought with the greatest fervour to ensure the speediest possible victory of the Kingdom of God on earth. One cannot imagine men and women with a less passive outlook than these Calvinists!

Now, in the period of the senile decay of capitalism, Marxists are more than ever convinced of the historical inevitability of the victory of socialism. In retrospect the victory of capitalist counter-revolution in Russia will be seen as an episode. The fall of the USSR is only the first act in a drama that is unfolding on a world scale and will end in the crisis and overthrow of capitalism.

The present organic crisis of capitalism represents the greatest threat to humanity. It is the duty of all conscious workers and youth to speed up the process by building a powerful anti-capitalist movement on a world scale. The success of this movement will be greatly facilitated to the degree that it adopts clear Marxist policies. This is only possible to the degree that the proletarian vanguard absorbs the traditions of Leninism and Bolshevism and takes as its model the October revolution.

And Stalinism? As a political current Stalinism is virtually extinct. The few old ladies who carry Stalin's portrait in Red Square are an expression of this fact. It is a decayed and discredited banner. But in one sense the remnants of Stalinism still persist within the Labour Movement - not as a coherent and organised current but as a definite mood among certain layers. The psychological basis of Stalinism (and of all bureaucratic tendencies in the workers' movement) is a lack of confidence in the working class and its revolutionary and socialist potential.

With the fall of the Soviet Union there has been a wave of apostasy and desertion from the ranks of the Marxist movement. People who yesterday called themselves Communists now speak contemptuously of socialism and the working class. These layers, who out of habit and inertia still occupy positions in the unions and workers' parties, are embittered and burnt out old people. Lacking a serious Marxist education, they have no perspective. Their sole aim in life is to justify themselves by blaming the working class for everything. They try to poison the new generation with their gangrenous scepticism. Pessimism is the first article of faith in the Credo of these cynics. They play the role of a heavy tail that seeks to drag the movement back and prevent it from advancing.

This layer does not represent the future but the past. It does not reflect the face of the working class but its backside. It will be swept aside by the development of the class struggle. The new generation, which has already begun to move, will sweep aside the old stale cobwebs and seek to understand the truth. For, in the words of Trotsky, the locomotive of history is truth, not lies.

The banner of October was dragged through the muck and blood by the Stalinist political counter-revolution. It is the task of the new generation to cleanse it of all the accumulated filth and raise it high. The real traditions of October are the only way forward for the world working class today. And to those cowards and faint-hearts who try to say that the working class is no longer prepared to fight for its emancipation, we answer in the words of Galileo:

Eppur si muove! - And yet it moves!