On December 21 a hundred years ago was born in Gori, in Russian Georgia, the man who was to become the blood-thirsty dictator of All-Russia, Joseph Djugashvili, better known as Stalin. Like Trotsky, he became an anti-Tsarist revolutionary while still a teenager, being active mainly in his native Georgia and other parts of the Caucasus, and like Trotsky also served a number of prison sentences and terms of exile.
One fact distinguished Stalin from most of the others who were to become leaders of the Bolshevik Party: he came from a poor background—his father was a cobbler not from the intelligentsia, that social group peculiar to Russia composed of university-educated people working mainly for the Tsarist State at national and local level. This was the group from which most anti-Tsarist revolutionaries—Mensheviks and Populists as well as Bolsheviks—were recruited and which in the end carried out the task which the Russian bourgeoisie was too weak and too dependent on Tsarism to carry out itself: the “bourgeois revolution” against absolutist rule and the restrictions it placed on the development of capitalism in Russia.
Although imagining themselves to be socialists and even, some of them, having a very good knowledge of Marx’s writings, the members of the revolutionary intelligentsia were in no doubt that it was they who should lead the coming anti-Tsarist revolution. Their disagreements were over who—the peasantry or the industrial working class—should provide the mass basis for this revolution. Lenin’s theory, that the working class left to themselves were incapable of reaching a revolutionary consciousness and that this would therefore have to be brought to them from outside, thus perfectly expressed their aspirations.
The Bolshevik Party, which was the most disciplined and the best organised of the various Russian revolutionary' organisations, was led from abroad by Lenin and others who cultivated close relations with the leaders of the Second International and who were able to discourse brilliantly on the finer points of Marxist theory. Inside Russia their organisation was run by men of a cruder type—like Stalin who seems for a while to have been in charge of a special section organising bank raids and hold-ups to help finance the Party’s activities.
Stalin was one of the editors of the Bolshevik paper Pravda when it first appeared in 1912, a post he resumed when the paper was allowed to appear again following the overthrow of the Tsar in March 1917. He had also been a member of the Central Committee of the Party since 1912 and as such was one of the group which took the decision to seize power in November 1917. Stalin thus played a somewhat greater part in the Russian revolution than Trotsky and Trotskyist writers have been prepared to credit him with but less than he himself was later to claim (to read later eulogies you would think that the Bolshevik seizure of power was engineered by him and Lenin alone).
On the strength of a pre-war pamphlet on the national question. Stalin was appointed Commissar for Nationalities in the first Bolshevik government but later, after the Civil War was over, ensconced himself in the secretariat of the Bolshevik Party. This was a key post since the Bolshevik Party was the government of Russia, both effectively in practice and in Leninist theory. According to Lenin, not only was the working class left to itself incapable of acquiring a revolutionary consciousness but it was also incapable of running society on its own; this latter would have to be done for it by, once again, the vanguard party which was supposed to represent its interests.
By the time Stalin became general secretary of the Central Committee of the Bolshevik Party in 1922, not only had all other political parties been suppressed but organised groups within the Bolshevik party itself had been banned. As secretary of the sole and monolithic political organisation in Russia Stalin was well placed, following the death of Lenin in 1924, to ensure that it was he who would emerge as future dictator. By 1928, he had out-manoeuvred all his rivals—Trotsky, Zinoviev, Kamanev—even, in the end, Bukharin who had been his ally and who was the real author of the absurd theory of “socialism-in-one-country” which Trotsky attributed to Stalin. He was then in a position to turn on the only other social group in Russia that could represent a threat to the rule of the Bolshevik Party he controlled. This was the new private bourgeoisie of rich traders (nepmen) and peasants (kulaks) which had grown up under the New Economic Policy inaugurated in 1921 by Lenin and officially described by the Bolshevik Party as “the development of capitalism under the control and regulation of the proletarian state”. The kulaks and nepmen as well as many not-so-rich peasants were to be brutally eliminated in the forced collectivisation and industrialisation that began in earnest after 1928.
By 1936 the position had been stabilised, a situation Stalin marked by proclaiming that “socialism” had now been achieved in Russia. In reality what had been achieved was the final evolution of the Bolshevik party and government into a stable class ruling on the basis of state capitalism.
Before 1914, Trotsky was virtually alone in suggesting that, if they ever got power in the course of the anti-Tsarist revolution, they should hold on to it and try to develop “socialism”. Which, during and after 1917, is precisely what the Bolshevik Party tried to do. But at that time Russia, backward and isolated from industrialised Europe and North America, was not ripe for socialism. Only capitalism, in one form or another, was possible there. In maintaining themselves in power after overthrowing Tsarism the Bolshevik Party now assumed the role of the capitalist class not only in the bourgeois revolution but also in the subsequent development of capitalism. But capitalism can’t exist without a capitalist class and, the traditional Russian bourgeoisie having been eliminated, it was from the ranks of the Bolshevik Party itself that the replacement capitalist class was to evolve.
This evolution was not a smooth process, especially as the ideology of the Bolshevik Party committed it to working class interests and to social equality. All those who had qualms about the evolution of the Party into a stable ruling class had first to be cleared away, a task Stalin probably enjoyed carrying out as a means of avenging himself on those who had looked down on him as a non-intellectual and mere organisation man. There is evidence from Lenin’s last articles that he had begun to realise just before he died that the Bolshevik Party was beginning to evolve in this direction. The others—with Trotsky at their head—were cleared away over the next few years.
Stalin, in putting the consolidation of the situation in Russia ahead of foreign adventures, perfectly expressed the wishes of the newly emerging ruling class. By 1934 he, on behalf of this class, was in a strong enough position to publicly repudiate the earlier Bolshevik ideal of social equality. Describing those who continued to preach equality as “leftist blockheads” he went on to tell the 17th Congress of the Bolshevik Party:
These people evidently think that Socialism calls for equality, for levelling the requirements and the personal lives of the members of society. Needless to say, such an assumption has nothing in common with Marxism, with Leninism. By equality Marxism means, not equality in personal requirements and personal life, but the abolition of class (quoted in the Webbs’ Soviet Communism: A New Civilization, 1936, p 702).
This is what the new privileged—with their bloated salaries, their exclusive shops and their special housing—wanted to hear. They wanted to keep their privileges and had no desire to be levelled down to the wage of an average worker as had once been Bolshevik theory.
Since under Stalin’s supposed “socialism” all the features of capitalism continued to exist—wages, profits, commodity production, banks, bonds, the state, social inequality—“Marxist” theory had to be revised. This can be said to have been Stalin’s main contribution to the Leninist distortion of Marxism, one that has been inherited by Communist Parties everywhere, Peking or Moscow line. None now has any idea what socialism means and originally meant (even for the Bolsheviks—see the extract we publish elsewhere in this issue from an article Stalin wrote in 1906): a moneyless, wageless, stateless society.
After 1936 Stalin continued to pursue the interests of the new state capitalist ruling class of Russia—even if many of them were to be the victims of his whims as he sought to consolidate his personal position as dictator. He built up a powerful and effective police state which, if only for the reason that it lasted longer, tortured and eliminated many more people than Hitler’s in Germany. He turned the Communist Parties in other countries into simple tools of Russian foreign policy ready to zig and zag as dictated from Moscow.
Stalin died on 5 March 1953, but the state capitalist dictatorship he had built up continued intact even if some of the rougher edges were smoothed away in the interests of industrial and military efficiency, not to mention the personal security of the leading members of the ruling class. The worst thing about Stalin was that, though clearly to be classed amongst history’s many cruel and bloodthirsty despots, he should have been considered a socialist. The immense harm this has done to the cause of socialism will never be able to be calculated, but must certainly be listed as one of the more important factors that has delayed the emergence of a genuine socialist understanding among the working class of the world.