Friday, November 3, 2017

Stalin — Three Portraits (1940)

Book Reviews from the June 1940 issue of the Socialist Standard

Stalin: A Critical Survey of Bolshevism by Boris Souvarine (Secker & Warburg, 15s.)
Stalin by Isaac Don Levine (Newnes; Private Lives Library; about 2s. 6d.)
Stalin by Stephen Graham (Hutchinson’s "Pocket Specials,” 7d.)

As an essay in “applied” psychology alone, Souvarine’s work, “Stalin” (Seeker & Warburg, 15s.), would occupy a high place; as a piece of historical interpretation it is in line with Marx’s classic “18th Brumaire.” While its 700 pages demand close attention, it is difficult to suggest how the conciseness which is a marked feature of Marx's work could have been attained here by Souvarine; analysis of historical events to-day is becoming increasingly difficult, complicated as it is (among other things) by powerful political movements claiming to be “Marxist” and “Socialist,” which are Reformist in intent, and therefore essentially capitalist in the outcome.

In Souvarine’s work, Economic Forces, shaping big human ends, are never lost sight of. As far as the working class is concerned, capitalism is a divinity which shapes our ends rough . . . hew them as we will (due apologies to big Shade at Stratford); the potent influence of an historical Past is skilfully but unobtrusively used to shed clear light upon the actors in the November Revolution, and the humble necessary “stage crowd” ranks with sordid “stars” in interest and importance.

It is worth recording that historical analogies suggested on the platform and in the Press of the Socialist Party of Great Britain occur frequently in this work.

From the political point of view, the least valuable result of “Stalin” is the sure emergence of a convincing likeness of this sinister hero of the Communist Party. “We are the Party of Lenin, Stalin and Dimitrov. No other party can produce such Giants, Leaders and Heroes as these” bawls Harry Pollitt (gigantic and heroic features duly glaring out on title-page). After reading Souvarine’s book it would surely be difficult not to reply, “Thank goodness!” To find parallel for dirty intrigue, appalling treachery and sickening cruelty within the Party itself, let alone outside, one has to go back to Elizabethan orgies of foulness and blood as mirrored by the lesser lights of the contemporary drama; it is more than probable that British tradition, outcome of the course of historical development in this country, will save Harry (spite of himself) from developing into “such” a Hero as Stalin in the extremely unlikely event of post-war "leadership” by the footling hangers-on of Moscow in this country. In this expression of opinion, the Brailsfords and the wailing Pinks of the New Statesman, seeking to distinguish the “Communist” from the “Stalinist,” will probably agree.

With unerring skill, Soviet “giants” are reduced to their real stature; undisputed facts backed by apt quotations from official sources do their work—quotations showing deliberate Soviet excisions from previous editions of official works are especially illuminating, not to speak of wholesale suppression of complete works hitherto officially recognised and boomed.

Startling examples of the Communist penchant for eating dirt are given—the peccant Pollitt grovelling in the dust for his “How to Win the War” via the Daily Worker, doesn’t do it with quite the abandon that his Russian comrade manages.

Souvarine trenchantly comments on the outward and visible signs in the Soviet Republic which indicate clearly inward and spiritual dis-grace— read pages 350 onwards. Significantly the author says: “The embalming of Lenin’s remains found its counterpart in the Communist International in the mummification of its founder’s work, the petrification of his thought.”

An example of Souvarine’s penetration is encountered on page 426: “Stalin likes to set going exaggerated demands in order that he may appear in the rôle of mediator, proposing a compromise which can then easily be put over.” In the light of recent events (Finland, for example) this estimate of one side of our hero’s low cunning is startlingly correct.

One thing is emphasised which is too often ill- understood, or simply not known. In Russia, expulsion from Party membership entails “loss of wages and house-room” (page 382). Loss of employment in this country too often entails the horrors of the P.A.C., in the U.S.S.R. it is often practically a sentence of death for the “purged” member; it carries with it the same dire consequences as banishment did in the Middle Ages. . . . It would be interesting to know how this feature of “Communism” reacts within the British Section; more unlikely things in this unlikely- happening war may eventuate which will reveal the extent of dependence.

Incidentally, a statement in a recent article, “The Real Russia,” was challenged; Souvarine may now be cited as credible evidence: “A decree extended the application of the death penalty for delinquents and criminals as from the age of twelve.”

We hope sympathisers and others will do their best to get this magnificent work in their public library—it is a tragedy that 15s. (cheap at the price) renders it practically impossible for private possession by the worker. One name may be missed in reading—the translator, C. L. R. James. What a piece of work! One wee criticism: Why “epigones”? English has a less recondite word for “Big Pots.”

Stalin by Isaac Don Levine.
For those who desire immediate information on the Russian Revolution, two other more modest works may be recommended. The first is by Don Levine (Newnes; Private Lives Library; about 2s. 6d.); the second, by Stephen Graham (Hutchinson’s "Pocket Specials,” 7d.). Both are entitled ”Stalin.”

The first-named is a sober record, with a clearly arranged chronological sequence of events; the author’s sympathies are vaguely "Trotskyist.” Page 168 contains as unflattering a portrait gallery of Communist Heroes as Souvarine’s. Pages 40-41 have a very useful summary of pre-Revolution industrialisation in Russia (considerably greater than is generally known).

Stephen Graham’s “Stalin” is a lively record covering a longer period than Levine; he makes no effort to conceal his loathing for Stalin; his modified admiration for Lenin is rather one outcome of a very pronounced anti-Semitic bias; Trotsky finds some grace, and is damned with faint praise as a Hamlet who never plucked up sufficient energy to apply the bare bodkin to his co-rival for Lenin’s mantle. Liveliness of style is instanced in summaries of character. "Litvinov was of the Potash and Perlmutter type.” “You could not say that Litvinov was a poisonous Jew like Zinovief, or a slimy Jew like Yagoda. He was just a plain, ordinary good-humoured Israelite. There are hundreds like him in New York.” As journalese, good of its kind in spite of crudity and over-emphasis, useful for certain facts.

1 comment:

Imposs1904 said...

"Reginald' was the pen name of Augustus Snellgrove. He first joined the SPGB back in September 1905, and his writing style is more reminiscent of those Socialist Standards from the pre-1914 period. Definitely a throwback.