Joseph Stalin’s death in 1953 was mourned by millions. Now, 20 years since the collapse of the Eastern Bloc, he has only a handful of admirers left.
Still, 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.
Stalinism was the product of defeat. Failure of revolution in Western Europe, and disintegration and demoralisation of the working class inside Russia, left the state machine in the hands of managers and bureaucrats.
Their connection with the working class, was only on the level of rhetoric.
Joseph Djugashvili (the pseudonym Stalin 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 his education by the only means open to a poor child—training for the priesthood. But the seminary expelled him for revolutionary activities.
Stalin joined Vladimir Lenin’s Bolshevik Party. Some have claimed that he was a police agent from the beginning, but there is no evidence of this.
Russia’s working class was new and militant.
The Bolsheviks, while organising a significant minority of workers, managed to win the support of a majority of that class for revolution to end capitalist rule in Russia.
Stalin soon rose into the Bolshevik leadership. But unlike Lenin he was not a theoretician.
And unlike Leon Trotsky, who chaired the revolutionary new St Petersburg Soviet (workers’ council) during the 1905 revolution, he was not a mass leader.
Stalin spent much of the First World War exiled in Siberia. But while Lenin was radically rethinking the prospects for revolution in Russia, Stalin wrote little or nothing during this period.
Revolution broke out again in 1917 as workers took power into their own hands, forming soviets.
But Stalin was not a conspicuous figure—from March to October, 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, only gives him a couple of passing mentions.
The Revolution terrified the ruling class around the world. The major powers all sent armies to back up Russia’s former leaders and invade the fledgling workers’ state.
During the savage civil war that followed the best of the workers from the soviets and the Bolsheviks rushed to the front to defend the revolution. Thousands of the bravest activists died.
In these years of setbacks Lenin recognised Stalin’s talents and gave him jobs where the brutal enforcement of authority and efficiency were necessary to defend the revolution.
But by 1922, the dying Lenin wrote his famous Testament, warning 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.”
Many claim that the Russian Revolution led inevitably to the horrors of Stalin. This is a lazy approach to history, an attempt to find a one-sentence explanation for a complex historical process.
And it fails to explain why Stalin murdered most of the best militants who had built the Bolshevik Party in the years before 1917.
Many of Lenin’s closest comrades were victims of the grotesque Moscow show trials, and were condemned on the basis of lies and falsified evidence.
Trotsky, Stalin’s most forthright opponent, was exiled and murdered on Stalin’s orders.
Stalin had put forward the new policy 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 50 or 100 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 had to modernise its economy and be prepared to confront the Western powers in military conflict.
Industrialisation in countries like Britain had 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.
Stalinism cannot be equated with bureaucrats becoming impatient—it was counter-revolution on an unprecedented scale. The workers’ power that had built the revolution was replaced by the rule of a new ruling class.
What came into existence was therefore a new form of capitalism—state capitalism. It appeared very different from the traditional model, but was 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 amid terrible waste.
Thousands upon thousands of party members and other citizens were purged and executed. Some of the most enthusiastic purgers were themselves purged later.
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 played no role in the Communist International. But his policies had a disastrous impact on the international movement.
The worst disaster was the German Communists’ line, dictated from Moscow, that the German Social Democrats—equivalent to the Labour Party—were no better than fascists. So the Communists would not form a united front with them and allowed Hitler to take power.
Then just before the outbreak of the Second World War, Stalin made a non-aggression pact with Adolf Hitler’s Germany.
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.
The manoeuvre was futile. Hitler used the pact as a delaying tactic and 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 had perished in the purges.
And throughout the war Stalin continued to purge military leaders—in 1942 no fewer than 30 generals were executed.
In October 1944 Stalin entertained British prime minister Winston Churchill in Moscow. The two old thugs had a great deal in common and 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.
On 5 March 1953 Stalin died. Nikita Khrushchev, who won the fight to succeed him, made a speech just three years later in which he denounced Stalin’s crimes.
Despite the denunciations, versions of his policies continued for decades.
But in 1956 the whole world saw tanks from the supposed workers’ state of Russia crush workers’ councils in Hungary.
Thousands of Communists left their parties, often to set up new organisations committed to authentic socialism.
And this was followed by the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 and the rise of the independent union Solidarity in Poland in the early 1980s.
Eventually the Berlin Wall fell and the Stalinist states collapsed.
Even 20 years after the end of these regimes some activists still equate socialism with Stalinism.
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 that can inspire and teach us.
Find out more about the Russian Revolution and the rise and fall of Stalin in the following books.
International Struggle and the Marxist Tradition by Tony Cliff (£10) Includes his classic State Capitalism in Russia
Available at Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop. Phone 020 7637 1848 or go to bookmarksbookshop.co.uk