Days of Reckoning

Orlando Figes

  • Stalin: Man and Ruler by Robert McNeal
    Macmillan, 389 pp, £16.95, June 1988, ISBN 0 333 37351 0

‘What is Stalin?’ an Old Bolshevik asked Trotsky in 1925. After a moment’s consideration came the reply: ‘the outstanding mediocrity in the Party’. Trotsky’s contempt may in part be explained by the wounds which his own pride had suffered from the growth of Stalin’s influence among the party rank and file after Lenin’s death in January 1924. On the other hand, not even Stalin’s closest allies considered intellect and charisma to be among his greatest virtues – at least, not until the Stalinist ‘cult of the personality’, which, according to Robert McNeal, didn’t really take off until 1933, four years after the consolidation of the Stalinist dictatorship.

Stalin was barely known to the Soviet people in the early Twenties. A poor public speaker and second-rate ideologue, he had established his reputation in the Party as a man behind the scenes – an effective administrator who could be relied on to do almost any kind of job at short notice and without hesitation. Stalin, as McNeal informs us, ‘was the man you counted on when the job was leaning on somebody’. During the early years of Bolshevik rule (1917-21), when the regime was engaged in a civil war against its political enemies, there were many such jobs to be done. Stalin’s offices multiplied, largely thanks to the patronage of Lenin himself. Yet he remained strangely insecure and highly sensitive to criticism. One source of insecurity was his Georgian background, for which he compensated with an aggressive Russian chauvinism (in a similar manner, Hitler buried his provincial Austrian roots in a pan-German nationalism). It is interesting in this context that Djugashvili-Stalin never quite managed to rid his spoken Russian of its Georgian accent. Unlike Lenin and Trotsky, he was untouched by the European currents that flowed into Russian culture until the Thirties, when he finally sealed off his servile kingdom from the West. Apart from a little self-taught German, he spoke no foreign languages. He made only four trips to Europe during his life. And he never wore a suit or necktie in public, but appeared in Asiatic military garb.

A second source of insecurity, which increased as his career progressed, was his revolutionary past and the doubts people had about it. There were rumours, which McNeal is probably right to discount, that Stalin had informed the Tsarist Police about some of his rivals in the Bolshevik underground in Baku. Martov, the Menshevik leader, was probably closer to the mark in 1918 when he accused Stalin of having carried out bank robberies (‘expropriations’) to finance party activities, although on this, as on quite a few other unresolved points in Stalin’s biography, McNeal appears to have no opinion. On several occasions during the Civil War, Trotsky, the War Commissar, complained that Stalin was waging his own private war for military glory at the expense of Red Army interests, although McNeal correctly apportions some of the blame for the disastrous Polish Campaign of August 1920 to Kamenev and Tukhachevsky. Lenin, the sick and dying man of 1922-23, also had his quarrels with Stalin, though by now he had entrusted his amanuensis with so many powers that he proved unable to get the better of him. A lifelong enemy of Russian chauvinism, Lenin was critical of Stalin’s high-handed treatment of the Georgian Communist leaders opposed to the Russian-dominated Transcaucasian Federation. In his final Testament, dictated for the 12th Party Congress in April 1923, the Bolshevik leader expressed his fears about Stalin’s ‘rudeness’ and his concentration of ‘boundless power’ in the party-state bureaucracy. To democratise the latter, he recommended a tenfold increase in the size of the Central Committee and the Party Commission of Control, with the new members drawn from ‘ordinary workers and peasants’. He also urged the Congress to replace Stalin as the Party’s General Secretary with a ‘more tolerant, more loyal and more polite’ person.

Given Stalin’s obvious faults, how did he manage to gain so much power during the decade following Lenin’s death? Western historians, who have so far dominated this subject, may be generally divided between those who have focused on Stalin’s success in high and middle-level party politics, and those mainly younger revisionists who have seen the maturation of Stalinism as part of a broader series of social and institutional developments in the Party and its relations with civil society. [*] The former – notably, Robert Tucker, Adam Ulam and the Soviet dissident historian, Roy Medvedev – have followed the classic studies of Trotsky, Souvarine and Deutscher in stressing the way in which Stalin undid Trotsky, Zinoviev, Kamenev and, finally, Bukharin, his rivals in the party leadership, by opportune changes of ideology and a series of brilliantly executed factional manoeuvres. They have attached great significance to the expansion of Stalin’s power base in the Orgburo-Secretariat, which, as McNeal reminds us, enabled Stalin ‘to staff the level just below the centre, the provincial level, with new secretaries, appointees who presumably owed him something and also understood his power to demote’. By 1924, 90 per cent of the provincial party secretaries had been appointed by Stalin’s Secretariat. By 1928-29, the critical years of Stalin’s power struggle against Bukharin, the biggest provincial party bosses, Kaganovich, Syrtsov, Baumann, Vareikis, had all come from Stalin’s central bureaucracy. Stalin’s ability to present himself and his conception of ‘socialism in one country’ to the Party as the only legitimate progeny of Lenin’s revolution is underlined by this approach, whose premise is a highly centralised (‘totalitarian’) system of party or police dictatorship under Stalin’s personal domination.

The revisionists (Sheila Fitzpatrick and J. Arch Getty are perhaps the best known, although Moshe Lewin pioneered the social history of Soviet Russia in the interwar period) have questioned how far Stalin was able, in practice, to exercise such autocratic powers. Fitzpatrick (unknown to McNeal) has depicted a Communist Party responding to changing social forces. The growing impatience of younger Communists – those who had grown up in the revolutionary period – with the slow pace of change during the late Twenties fuelled the Stalinist drive towards industrialisation and renewed class struggle. The formation of a newly educated industrial élite of working-class origin during the Thirties created a social base for the replacement of ‘bourgeois specialists’ with proletarian cadres, an integral element of the industrial purges. Getty has portrayed the Party in the Thirties as a decentralised and disorganised system. The Great Purges of 1937-38 (and, implicitly, the mass terror of collectivisation and industrialisation) were not the result of co-ordinated plans on the part of the Stalinist leadership, but an unintended consequence of zealous local officials acting in response to radical but imprecise orders from above.

Getty sees Stalin as a ‘make-weight’ in the party leadership. This is reminiscent of Trotsky’s view of him as a personification of the rising bureaucratic class, the Revolution’s first urban sons, vilified by Bukharin for not knowing ‘Bebel from Babel, Gogol from Hegel’. This interpretation leaves open the more complex question – one so often overlooked by Marxists in their search for ‘objective’ historical ‘processes’ – of how the Stalinist leadership and its cult of the personality managed to gain such a hold over the beliefs and actions not merely of thousands of Communists, but of millions of ordinary people. The mass terror unleashed by forcible collectivisation and industrialisation, which destroyed a still unknown (and bitterly contested) number of millions of lives, will only be understood when we – or more pertinently, the Soviets – come to terms with the fact that many people, including some of the victims themselves, actually believed it when the party leadership and (according to McNeal) only occasionally the press spoke of ‘traitors’, ‘wreckers’ and ‘class enemies’ and held such people up for public scorn before their execution. Many workers seriously regarded the engineers and technicians in their factory as ‘hirelings of the bourgeoisie’, and denounced them to the authorities in a wave of ‘revolutionary enthusiasm’, as Hiroaki Kuromiya’s new book will show.[†]

It would be emotionally comforting, but intellectually shallow, to blame all these atrocities on Stalin himself. Soviet historians tended (understandably) to do this during the Khrushchev period, when Stalin’s crimes were officially made public. The current Soviet historical debates under the aegis of Gorbachev’s policy of glasnost promise to go much further: to tackle the deeper and more painful questions about how all this came to pass. How far was Stalin’s rise to power facilitated by the lack of democracy within the Communist Party? Were there any real political alternatives (e.g. the policies of Trotsky or Bukharin) which the Party failed to acknowledge? And how should the Soviet people weigh the crimes of the Stalinist regime against the achievements of national resistance during 1941-45? In an extract from his forthcoming biography of Stalin, Triumph and Tragedy, published in Literaturnaya Gazeta, the Soviet military-political historian, D.A. Volkoganov, argued that Stalin would not have been able to play such a decisive role had the Party democratised itself on the lines set out by Lenin: ‘the tragedy was not inevitable.’ At a conference of Anglo-Soviet historians in London last March, V.P. Danilov, the leading Soviet authority on collectivisation, made a powerful argument for Bukharin’s model of balanced economic growth, supposedly represented by the first Five Year Plan (April 1929), as an alternative to Stalin’s ‘great leap forward’, which undermined the Five Year Plan after November 1929, causing economic dislocation and famine in the countryside.

Danilov goes much further in his condemnation of Stalinism and in his discussion of the alternatives to it than a good number of Western historians, who have remained sceptical of Bukharin’s plans for industrialisation within the market-socialist framework of the New Economic Policy. McNeal unfortunately omits any detailed discussion of the feasible alternatives to Stalinism and unfairly asserts that Bukharin’s opposition to forcible collectivisation ‘rested on utilitarian economic grounds rather than moral scruples’. In fact, Bukharin envisaged the NEP strategy for balanced economic growth and voluntary collectivisation as an essential precondition of the alliance between workers and peasants which Lenin had fought to maintain at all costs.

After 35 years of distinguished scholarship on Stalin and other aspects of Soviet history, McNeal would perhaps have done better to wait a little longer before publishing this detailed full-length biography. The boundaries of knowledge in this area and the ways of thinking about the Stalin problem are likely to be transformed over the next few years by the re-entry of Soviet historians into the field – a point McNeal himself briefly alludes to in his closing remarks. One change we may expect is the release of more information about Stalin’s personal activities during the shady periods of his career. We know very little, for example, about his movements from May to October 1929, crucial months in the power struggle against Bukharin. McNeal’s opinion is that he was on holiday on the Black Sea.

Another mystery that may or may not be resolved concerns Stalin’s involvement in the murder in December 1934 of Kirov, the Leningrad party boss and Stalin’s chief potential rival. McNeal presents the available evidence with exemplary even-handedness, but refrains from a final judgment. He may be commended on these grounds for his treatment of other uncertainties of fact in Stalin’s biography. It is, however, disappointing that he remains equally uncommitted on broader matters of interpretation which can’t be said to depend on the availability of information. The reader, for example, is unlikely to be satisfied with McNeal’s conclusion on Stalin’s psychological condition: ‘it is difficult to demonstrate his insanity in the late 1930s on the existing evidence yet difficult to believe that his psychological condition was normal.’ Surely a biographer should have more to say about the psyche of a man who probably drove his wife to suicide in 1932, who failed to attend his mother’s funeral in 1936, who periodically imprisoned his son (Vasily, like his father, became an alcoholic), and who, in 1947, sent his elderly sisters-in-law to jail because they ‘babbled a lot’? This is a biography rich in detail, but with a large hole in the middle.

A second area of inquiry which is likely to develop under Gorbachev concerns the general nature of the Stalinist dictatorship. How central was Stalin himself in determining the direction of party policies and holding together the various organs of the dictatorship? Was the party-state bureaucracy in a position to control society, or did it simply respond in an ad hoc fashion to changing social forces? McNeal steers a steady and honourable course between the old rocks of the ‘totalitarian’ school and the new winds of revisionism coming from Getty and others. He sees Stalin in the early Thirties as a ‘ “chairman of the board”, delegating most of the crucial work to commissions, listening to opposing viewpoints’ and coming down on one side or the other at the last moment. This is a sound interpretation of the politics of Stalin’s Politburo: it accords with the way Stalin’s political strategies zigzagged during the Twenties, and is compatible with Getty’s view of the party leadership in the early Thirties as a pluralist entity within which Stalin, more than other leaders, manoeuvred and altered his policies. McNeal shows, for example, that Stalin’s views on the pace of collectivisation were still not fully formulated during the autumn of 1929, when they were pre-empted by a radical wave of collectivisation in the localities, encouraged by Molotov and other Moscow leaders. Stalin threw his support behind forcible mass collectivisation in January 1930, but ‘his main role’, McNeal argues, ‘was to approve the plans [of] his colleagues’, while in March, when economic disaster and peasant uprisings threatened the regime, he ‘was ahead of the Politburo in calling for temporary retreat’.

This ad hoc pattern of policy formation and implementation was, according to McNeal, much less apparent during the purges of the later Thirties, which were conducted through an integrated complex of political institutions, subordinated to the Central Committee: ‘Stalin’s decision to have done with oppositionists within the Central Committee guaranteed a massive wave of arrests, executions and sentences to Gulag in all branches of the Soviet system.’ This viewpoint is likely to be proved correct as more documents from the interrogations of the purge trials are brought to light in Soviet historical journals. Those which have already appeared suggest that Stalin personally signed thousands of death warrants. Some of his personal enemies were murdered without formal procedures: according to rumour, Krupskaya, Lenin’s widow, was poisoned by a cake sent by Stalin on her 70th birthday. McNeal’s argument implies that the structure of power was centralised under Stalin’s personal authority during the middle Thirties: he does not attempt to explain how this might have come about. He rightly emphasises the importance of the Stalin cult, yet does not show its effect on the psychology of party cadres and ordinary people, the people who made the denunciations (and serviced the Gulag) and who must thus bear a share of the guilt.

The questions about the Stalin era posed by the revisionists remain wide open. We would benefit from some hard work in the field of Soviet socio-political history – and it is important that this is carried out in alliance with our more open-minded Soviet colleagues – before turning again to the problem of Stalin, man and ruler. In the meantime, McNeal’s biography will certainly serve as the fairest and most authoritative account researched in the Brezhnev era.

[*] Historians of the Nazi regime have been similarly divided since the Sixties between ‘intentionalists’ stressing Hitler’s role in the shaping and implementation of Nazi policy, and ‘structuralists’ emphasising the ‘polycratic’ or multi-dimensional nature of the Nazi state, its relationship with old élites and institutions, and its ‘cumulative radicalisation’ in response to changing social forces.

[†] Stalin’s Industrial Revolution: Politics and Workers 1928-1931 will be published by Cambridge in August.