STALIN – THE MAN WHO BETRAYED THE REVOLUTION
This was the last of many articles I wrote for Socialist Worker. The Editor thought it failed to contribute adequately to the argument about Lenin leading to Stalin, and eventually it was radically rewritten by the SW editorial staff. It eventually appeared on 5 March 2013, the sixtieth anniversary of Stalin’s death. – See http://socialistworker.co.uk/art/30202/Stalins+river+of+blood This is the original version I wrote.
Sixty years ago, on 5 March 1953, Joseph Stalin died. Today he has only a handful of admirers, as against millions who flattered and praised him when he held power. But his name and his crimes are still used to discredit the idea of socialist revolution. Telling the truth about Stalin is part of the job of defining the very different kind of socialism we aspire to.
Joseph Djugashvili (his pseudonym meant “man of steel”) was born in Georgia in 1878. Tsarist Russia was a harsh society, marked by bitter poverty and authoritarian power. If Stalin was a brutal individual, he was very much the product of a brutal social order.
He got an education of sorts by the only means open to a poor child – training for the priesthood. But instead he became a revolutionary socialist, a Bolshevik. There is no reason to doubt his original commitment. There have been claims that he was a police agent from the beginning, but there is no evidence to back them up. Stalin’s career is a reminder that even the most sincere revolutionaries can go wrong – a warning for us all.
Stalin soon rose into the Bolshevik leadership. But unlike Lenin, he was not a theoretician, and unlike Trotsky, who played a leading role in the St Petersburg Soviet in 1905, he was not a mass leader. While Lenin and Trotsky spent much time in the West, and understood the international movement, Stalin travelled little, though in 1907 he did attend a conference at the Brotherhood Church in Hackney.
He was exiled in Siberia during the First World War, but while Lenin was radically rethinking the prospects for revolution in Russia, Stalin wrote little or nothing during this period. In 1917 he was not a conspicuous figure – from March to October 1917, he spoke in public only three times. He had little liking for the unpredictability of mass meetings, preferring to bury himself in the party apparatus. The classic account of the Revolution by American journalist John Reed, Ten Days that Shook the World, gives him only a couple of passing mentions. Stalin had no talent for seizing the time; his strength was patience, waiting till the situation suited him.
In the difficult years after the Revolution, Stalin was an efficient but ruthless administrator, and Lenin was happy to entrust him with important responsibilities. But by 1922, when Lenin could see that he had not much longer to live, he wrote his famous Testament, warning the other Bolshevik leaders about Stalin: “Comrade Stalin, having become Secretary-General, 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.”
When Lenin was safely dead, Stalin put forward his new perspective of “socialism in one country”. While Lenin’s whole strategy had been based on the hope that revolution would spread rapidly to the West, Stalin now argued that world revolution was indefinitely postponed. So the task was for Russia to industrialise on its own. In 1931 Stalin warned: “We are fifty or a hundred years behind the advanced countries. We must make good this distance in ten years. Either we do it, or we shall go under.”
The logic was simple. Russia was now in direct competition with Western capitalism. It had to modernise its economy and be prepared to confront the Western powers in military conflict. Industrialisation in countries like Britain had been a brutal process which wrecked the lives of millions of working people. But to carry out this process in a couple of decades rather than over a century meant an almost unimaginable degree of brutality.
As Victor Serge wrote of Stalin’s first Five Year Plan: “Who can fail to recall, with this picture before him, the pages of Capital where Marx describes the relentless mechanism of primitive capitalist accumulation? One is tempted to speak of a primitive socialist accumulation, just as cruel as the other, just as anti-socialist in its methods and in the treatment inflicted upon man.”
What came into existence was therefore a new form of capitalism, apparently very different from the traditional model, but very similar from the point of view of the workers being exploited. The so-called “planned economy” had nothing to do with democratic socialist planning, but merely offered a set of targets for rapid industrialisation. There were real economic achievements, but often amidst terrible waste.
It also meant a direct confrontation with the party that Lenin had built. Most old Bolsheviks were intransigent internationalists, and had no time for Stalin’s new line. Many of Lenin’s closest comrades, like Zinoviev and Bukharin, were victims of the grotesque Moscow trials, and were condemned on the basis of lies and falsified evidence. Trotsky, Stalin’s most forthright opponent, was exiled and later murdered on Stalin’s orders.
Thousands upon thousands of party members and other citizens were purged and executed; some of the most enthusiastic purgers were themselves purged later. There was a massive waste of the most dedicated and talented party members. But there also new openings for ambitious young bureaucrats, often people who had played no part in the revolution and had no sense of its ideals. These became Stalin’s most devoted supporters.
Stalin had little interest in the international movement and played no role in the Communist International. But his policies had a disastrous impact on the international Communist movement. The German Communists’ line, dictated from Moscow, that the German Social Democrats (equivalent to the Labour Party) were no better than fascists, prevented the formation of a united front and allowed Hitler to take power.
Then just before the outbreak of World War II, Stalin made a non-aggression pact with Hitler. Communists around the world, who had seen their parties as being the most determined opponents of fascism, were appalled. German Communists who had sought refuge in Russia were handed over to Hitler.
Stalin’s manoeuvre was futile. Hitler had only used the pact as a delaying tactic; once Western Europe was occupied he invaded Russia. The Russian people resisted with enormous courage and at the cost of colossal losses. But they were hardly helped by Stalin’s leadership. Some of the most talented military leaders, like Tukhachevsky, had perished in the purges. And throughout the war Stalin continued to purge military leaders; in 1942 no fewer than thirty generals were executed.
In October 1944 Stalin entertained British prime minister Winston Churchill in Moscow. The two old thugs, who despite the differences in their background and ideology had a great deal in common, seem to have got on together very well. They planned the post-war carve-up of Europe between them. Churchill later denounced the creation of the “Iron Curtain”, but he had helped to prepare it.
Stalin’s last years were wretched ones. Years of heavy drinking had taken their toll. Both his body and his mind were in decline. His memory was failing, and he could no longer remember who had been purged and who had not; on one occasion he proposed someone for a drama prize who was already in jail. Yet state-sponsored flatterers continued to praise him in the most inane terms: “I would have compared him to the brilliant sun – but the sun radiates at noon, not at midnight” wrote one poet.
On 5 March 1953 he died, slumped in his own urine, his eyelids too dry to close. Already the Central Committee were preparing to fight over who would inherit the leadership. Khrushchev, who won the fight, made a speech just three years later in which he denounced Stalin’s crimes. Communists around the world were shocked and appalled. But if they had read Trotsky or Victor Serge they would have known it all many years earlier.
So why remember Stalin today? In the thirties many thousands of working-class militants looked to Russia because it seemed to offer an alternative to fascism, war and mass unemployment, which was all Western capitalism had to offer.
Today millions of young people around the world are looking for an alternative. Stalinism offers a bleak image of what socialism is not. But the early years of workers’ power in Russia, and the traditions of those who resisted Stalin’s rise, often at the cost of their lives, offer a vision which can inspire and teach us.