Joseph Stalin wrote to his Bolshevik party comrade Lev Kamenev in 1912, “I kiss you on the nose, Eskimo-fashion. Dammit! I miss you something awful. I miss you like hell, I swear. I have no one, not a soul to have a proper talk with, damn you.”
But 24 years later, he stage-managed Kamenev’s trial as a “fascist spy” and had him shot “like a dog”.
In 1912, Stalin was regarded as an audacious revolutionary and an affable comrade. By the 1930s, he was a dictator presiding over the death of millions and helping to snuff out revolutionary possibilities across the world.
Stalin and his crimes are often used to discredit the idea of socialist revolution.
In fact, Stalinism was the product of the defeat of revolution.
Joseph Djugashvili—Stalin’s real name—was born in 1878. His father was a cobbler. To escape poverty he went to train as a priest, but discovered atheism and Marxism.
Stalin worked in the illegal revolutionary networks, was repeatedly jailed and suffered internal exile.
He carried out robberies for the revolution. In June 1907 in Tiflis, he staged a successful attack on a shipment worth a fortune to the State Bank.
By the outbreak of the 1917 Russian Revolution he was a trusted Bolshevik functionary.
A member of the Executive Committee of the Petrograd Soviet and the Bolshevik central committee, Stalin tended to go with whichever was the most dominant opinion in the party.
Outside revolutionaries, Stalin was not a conspicuous figure. From March to October 1917 he spoke in public only three times.
In 1922, the dying revolutionary leader Lenin warned the other Bolshevik leaders, “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.”
After Lenin’s death Stalin tried to seize Lenin’s reputation by insisting on the mummification of his body and the deification of his name.
The Russian Revolution was isolated. The working class that had made the revolution was almost entirely wiped out by war and famine.
Of the three million adult workers in Russia, only 1.2 million remained by 1921, and many of those were driven out of the cities in search of food.
Revolutionary Leon Trotsky described the way in which sections of the Bolsheviks represented the pulls on the revolution. Some represented workers’ interests, others the return of private capitalism.
Stalin represented the growth of the bureaucracy.
Trotsky’s analysis had huge strengths, but he was wrong when he thought that the bureaucracy was not strong enough to form a new ruling class.
The revolution didn’t spread, so it withered. A counter-revolution took over with Stalin as its embodiment.
Stalin put forward the new policy of “socialism in one country”. He argued that world revolution was indefinitely postponed. So the task was for Russia to industrialise.
In 1931 Stalin said, “We are 50 or 100 years behind the advanced countries. We must make good this distance in 10 years.”
Industrialisation in countries such as Britain had wrecked the lives of millions of workers during a process lasting over 100 years. Stalin’s brutality was to do it in 20.
One by one the gains of the revolution were cast aside.
Stalin destroyed what people fought for in 1917 and he physically liquidated many of the people who fought in 1917 because they carried the memory of the revolution.
Russia became not a socialist society at all. It was a state-capitalist society presided over by a tyrant.