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STALIN: THE HISTORY AND CRITIQUE OF A BLACK LEGEND
Domenico LosurdoREAD or Download
Translated using the Portuguese edition of the book, often consulting the Portuguese edition, not the original Italian edition.Translated by David Ferreira
Introduction: The Turning Point in the Historical Depiction of Stalin 1
3. Between the Twentieth Century and The Longue Durée, from the History of Marxism to the History of Russia: the Origins of "Stalinism"
5. The Distortion of History and the Construction of a Mythology: Stalin and Hitler as Twin Monsters
Introduction: The Turning Point in the Historical Depiction of StalinFrom the Cold War to the Khrushchev Report
Impressive demonstrations of grief accompanied Stalin's passing. In his death throes, “millions of people crowded the center of Moscow to pay their last respects” to the dying leader. On March 5th, 1953, “millions of citizens cried over his loss as if they were mourning for a loved one."1 The same reaction took place in the most remote corners of this enormous country, for example, in a “small village” that, as soon as it learned of what had happened, fell into spontaneous and collective mourning.2 The generalized consternation went beyond the borders of the USSR: “Many cried as they passed through the streets of Budapest and Prague."3
Thousands of kilometers away from the socialist camp, in Israel the sorrowful reaction was also widespread: “All members of MAPAM, without exception, cried”, and this was a party in which “all the veteran leaders” and “nearly all the ex-combatants” belonged to. The suffering was mixed with fear. “The sun has set” was the title of Al Hamishmar, the newspaper of the Kibbutz movement. For a certain amount of time, such sentiments were shared by leading figures of the state and military apparatus: “Ninety officers who had participated in the 1948 war, the great war of Jewish independence, joined a clandestine armed organization that was pro-Soviet and revolutionary. Of these, eleven later became generals and one became a government minister, and are now honored as the founding fathers of Israel."4
1. Medvedev (1977), p. 705; Zubkova (2003), description taken from photo number 19 and 20.
2. Thurston (1996), pp. xiii-xiv.3. Fejtö (1971), p. 31.
4. Nirenstein (1997).In the West, it’s not just leaders and members of communist parties with ties to the Soviet Union who pay homage to the deceased leader. One historian (Isaac Deutscher) who was a fierce admirer of Trotsky, wrote an obituary full of acknowledgements:
After three decades, the face of the Soviet Union has been completely transformed. What’s essential to Stalinism’s historical actions is this: it found a Russia that worked the land with wooden plows and left it as the owner of the atomic bomb. It elevated Russia to the rank of the second industrial power in the world, and it’s not merely a question of material progress and organization. A similar result could not have been achieved without a great cultural revolution in which an entire country has been sent to school to receive an extensive education.
In summary, despite conditioned and in part disfigured by the Asiatic and despotic legacy of Tsarist Russia, in Stalin’s USSR “the socialist ideal has an innate and solid integrity.”
In this historical evaluation there was no longer a place for Trotsky’s harsh accusations directed at the deceased leader. What sense was there in condemning Stalin as a traitor to the ideals of world revolution and as the capitulationist theorist of socialism in one country, at a time in which the new social order had expanded in Europe and in Asia and had broken “its national shell”?5 Ridiculed by Trotsky as a “small provincial man thrust into great world events, as if by a joke of history”,6 in 1950 Stalin had become, in the opinion of an illustrious philosopher (Alexandre Kojčve), the incarnation of the Hegelian spirit of the world and called upon to unify and lead humanity, resorting to energetic methods, in practice combining wisdom and tyranny.7
Outside communist circles, or the communist aligned left, despite the escalating Cold War and the continued hot war in Korea, Stalin’s death brought out largely “respectful” or “balanced” obituaries in the West. At that time, “he was still considered a relatively benign dictator and even a statesman, and in the popular consciousness the affectionate memory of “uncle Joe” persisted, the great war- time leader that had guided his people to victory over Hitler and had helped save Europe from Nazi barbarity."8 The ideas, impressions and emotions of the years of the Grand Alliance hadn’t yet vanished, when―Deutscher recalled in 1948―statesmen and foreign generals were won over by the exceptional competence with which Stalin managed all the details of his war machine."9
5. Deutscher (1972a), pp. 167-169.
6. Trotsky (1962), p. 170.
7. Kojčve (1954).
8. Roberts (2006), p. 3.
9. Deutscher (1969), p. 522.
Included among the figures “won over” was the man who, in his time, supported military intervention against the country that emerged out of the October Revolution, namely Winston Churchill, who with regards to Stalin had repeatedly expressed himself in these terms: “I like that man."10 On the occasion of the Tehran Conference in November, 1943, the British statesman had praised his Soviet counterpart as “Stalin the Great”: he was a worthy heir to Peter the Great; having saved his country, preparing it to defeat the invaders.11 Certain aspects had also fascinated Averell Harriman, the American ambassador to Moscow between 1943 and 1946, who always positively painted the Soviet leader with regard to military matters: “He appears to me better informed than Roosevelt and more realistic than Hitler, to a certain degree he’s the most efficient war leader."12 In 1944 Alcide De Gasperi had expressed himself in almost emphatic terms, having celebrated “the historic, secular and immense merit of the armies organized by the genius, Joseph Stalin." The recognition from the eminent Italian politician isn’t merely limited to the military sphere:
When I see Hitler and Mussolini persecute men for their race, and invent that terrible anti- Jewish legislation that we’re familiar with, and when I see how the Russians, made up of 160 different races, seek their fusion, overcoming the existing differences between Asia and Europe, this attempt, this effort toward the unification of human society, let me just say that this is the work of a Christian, this is eminently universalistic in the Catholic sense.13
No less powerful or uncommon was the prestige that Stalin had enjoyed, and continued enjoying, among the great intellectuals. Harold J. Laski, a prestigious supporter of the British Labour Party, speaking in the fall of 1945 with Norberto Bobbio, had declared himself an “admirer of the Soviet Union” and its leader, describing him as someone who is “very wise."14 In that same year, Hannah Arendt wrote that the country led by Stalin distinguished itself for the “completely new and successful way of facing and solving national conflicts, of organizing different peoples on the basis of national equality”; it was a type of model, it was something “that every political and national movement should pay attention to."15
10. Roberts (2006), p. 273.
11. In Fontaine (2005), p. 66; referencing a book by Averell Harriman and Elie Abel.
12. In Thomas (1988), p. 78.
13. De Gasperi (1956), pp. 15-16.
14. Bobbio (1997), p. 89.
15. Arendt (1986b), p. 99.
For his part, writing just before and soon after the end of World War II, Benedetto Croce recognized Stalin’s merit in having promoted freedom not only at the international level, thanks to the contribution given to the struggle against Nazi-fascism, but also in his own country. Indeed, who led the USSR was “a man gifted with political genius”, who carried out an important and positive historical role overall; with respect to pre-revolutionary Russia, “Sovietism has been an advance for freedom,'' just as, “in relation to the feudal regime”, the absolute monarchy was also “an advance for freedom and resulted in the greater advances that followed." The liberal philosopher’s doubts were focused on the future of the Soviet Union; however, these same doubts, by contrast, further highlighted the greatness of Stalin: he had taken the place of Lenin, in such a way that a genius had been followed by another, but what sort of successors would be given to the USSR by “Providence”?16
Those that, with the beginning of the Great Alliance’s crisis, started drawing parallels between Stalin’s Soviet Union and Hitler’s Germany had been severely criticized by Thomas Mann. What characterized the Third Reich was the “racial megalomania” of the self-proclaimed “master race”, which had carried forth a “diabolical program of depopulation”, and before that the eradication of the culture of the conquered territories. Hitler stuck to Nietzsche’s maxim: “if one wants slaves, it’s foolish to educate them like masters." The orientation of “Russian socialism” was the precise opposite; massively expanding education and culture, it had demonstrated it didn’t want “slaves”, but instead “thinking men”, therefore placing them on the “path to freedom." Consequently, the comparison between the two regimes became unacceptable. Moreover, those that made such an argument could be suspected of complicity with the fascist ideology they sought to condemn:
To place Russian communism and Nazi-fascism on the same moral place, in the measure that both are totalitarian, is superficial at best; fascism at worst. Anyone who insist on this comparison could very well be considered a democrat, but deep in their heart a fascist is already there, and naturally they will only fight fascism in a superficial and hypocritical way, while they save all their hatred for communism.17
16. Croce (1993), vol. 2, pp. 33-34 and 178.
17. Mann (1986a), pp. 271 and 278-279; Mann (1986b), pp. 311-312.
After the outbreak of the Cold War, and upon publishing her book on totalitarianism, Arendt would do in 1961 that which was precisely denounced by Mann. And yet, almost at the same time, Kojčve had pointed to Stalin as the protagonist of a decidedly progressive historical turning point of planetary dimensions. In other words, even in the West this new truth, or this new ideological motive in the two-sided struggle against the different manifestations of totalitarianism, had a hard time in asserting itself. In 1948, Laski had to some degree accentuated his expressed point of view from three years earlier. To define the USSR, he had again used a category utilized by another leading figure of British Labourism, Beatrice Webb, who as early as 1931, but also during the Second World War and up until her death, had referred to the Soviet nation as a “new civilization." Yes―Laski confirmed―with a formidable effort given to social promotion of the classes that for so long had been exploited and oppressed, and with the introduction into the factory and workplaces of new social relations, no longer rooted in the sovereign power of the owners over the means of production, the country led by Stalin emerged as the “pioneer of a new civilization." Certainly, both were quick to make clear that “barbarian Russia” still weighed upon the “new civilization” that was emerging. It expressed itself in despotic ways, but―Laski in particular stressed―to formulate a correct judgement on the Soviet Union, it was necessary not to lose sight of an essential fact: “Its leaders came to power in a country accustomed to having a bloody tyrant” and they were forced to govern in a situation characterized by a more or less permanent “state of siege” and by a “potential or ongoing war." Moreover, in situations of intense crisis, Britain and the United States had also limited traditional liberties in more or less drastic ways.18
In relaying the admiration by Laski toward Stalin and the country led by him, Bobbio much later wrote: “After the victory against Hitler, to which the Soviets had made a decisive contribution with the battle of Stalingrad [such a declaration] doesn’t really surprise me." In truth, for the British Labourite intellectual, the acknowledgements made to the USSR and its leader went well beyond the military sphere. On the other hand, would the position of the Turinese philosopher be all that different at that time? In 1954, he published an essay that attributed to the Soviet Union (and the other socialist states) the merit of having “initiated a new phase of civil progress in politically backwards countries, introducing traditionally democratic institutions, from formal democracy, like universal suffrage and elected positions, as well as substantial democracy, like the collectivization of the means of production”; it was a matter then of pouring “a drop of [liberal] oil on the machinery of the now completed revolution."19 As you can see, the judgement formulated on the country that was still in mourning over Stalin’s death was by no means negative.
In 1954, the legacy of liberal socialism still resonates in Bobbio. Despite forcefully stressing the indispensable value of freedom and democracy during the years of the war in Spain, Carlo Rosselli had negatively compared the liberal countries (“the British government is on the side of Franco, starving Bilbao”) to the Soviet Union, committed to helping the Spanish Republic under attack by Nazi-fascism.20 Nor was it merely a matter of international politics. In a world characterized by the “era of fascism, of imperialist wars and capitalist decadence”, Carlo Rosselli raised the example of a country that, despite being far from the objective of a mature democratic socialism, had left capitalism behind and represented “a capital of invaluable experiences” for those who were committed to the construction of a better society: “Today, with the enormous Russian experience [...] we can make use of an immense volume of positive material. We all know what the socialist revolution and the socialist organization of production represent."21
18. Webb (1982-1985), vol. 4, pp. 242 and 490 (diary entries from March 15th, 1931, and December 6th, 1942); Laski (1948), pp. 39-42 et passim.
19. Bobbio (1997), p. 89; Bobbio (1977), pp. 164 and 280.
20. Rosselli (1988), pp. 358, 362, and 367.
21. Ibid. pp. 301, 304-306, and 381.
In conclusion, for an entire historical period, in circles that went far beyond the communist movement, the country led by Stalin and Stalin himself could enjoy sympathetic curiosity, respect and, at times, even admiration. It’s true there was serious disappointment caused by the pact with Nazi Germany, but soon Stalingrad had managed to erase it. That is why in 1953, and in the years immediately following, homage to the deceased leader united the socialist camp, appeared to strengthen the communist movement―despite its earlier divisions―and to a certain extent was felt even in the liberal West, which was then engaged in a Cold War uncompromisingly carried out by both sides. It’s no coincidence that in the Fulton speech which officially started the Cold War, Churchill expressed himself as follows: “I have great admiration and respect for the courageous Russian people and for my war time companion, marshal Stalin."22 There’s no doubt that, as the Cold War grew more intense, the rhetoric became increasingly hardened. However, in 1952, a great British historian who had worked in the Foreign Office, namely Arnold Toynbee, could still compare the Soviet leader to “a brilliant man: Peter the Great”; yes, “the test of battle ended up justifying the tyrannical drive toward technological westernization carried out by Stalin, just as it had happened earlier with Peter the Great." It continued being justified even after the defeat dealt to the Third Reich: after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Russia once again “needed a forced march to catch up with the West’s technological level” that had once again “leaped ahead."23
22. Churchill (1974), p. 7290.
23. Toynbee (1992), pp. 18-20.
Toward an Overall Comparison
Maybe even more than the Cold War, there’s another historical event that forces a radical turn in the history of Stalin’s image; Churchill’s speech from March 5th, 1946, has a less important role than another speech, the one given ten years later, on February 25th of 1956 to be exact, by Nikita Khrushchev during the Twentieth Party Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.
That Report, which paints a picture of a mad and bloodthirsty dictator, who’s vain and either mediocre or completely laughable on the intellectual level, satisfied nearly everyone for more than three decades. It allowed for the USSR’s new leadership group to present themselves as the only source of revolutionary legitimacy within the country, the socialist camp and the international communist movement that saw Moscow as its center. Strengthened in their old convictions and with new arguments available to wage the Cold War, the West also had its motives to be satisfied (or enthusiastic). In the United States, sovietology had demonstrated its tendency to develop around the CIA and other military and intelligence agencies, early on removing the elements suspected of having sympathies to the homeland of the October Revolution.24 A process took place which militarized a key-discipline for the conduct of the Cold War; in 1949, the president of the American Historical Association had declared: “we can’t allow ourselves to be anything but orthodox”, a “plurality of objectives and values” is not permitted. It’s necessary to accept “ample measures of enlistment” because the “total war, be it hot or cold, recruits every one of us and calls on every one of us to do their part. The historian is no more free of this obligation than the physicist."25 None of this ends in 1956, but now a more or less militarized sovietology can enjoy the accommodation and support coming from within the communist world itself.
It’s true, rather than communism as such, the Khrushchev report pointed the finger at a single person, but in those years it was opportune, including from the point of view of Washington and its allies, not to expand the target too greatly, and instead concentrate fire on Stalin’s country. With the signing of the “Balkan Pact” of 1953, signed by Turkey and Greece, Yugoslavia became a type of external member of NATO, and nearly twenty years later China also made a de facto alliance with the United States against the Soviet Union. It was above all else a matter of isolating that superpower, which is forced into an increasingly radical “de-stalinization”, until leaving it without any form of identity and self-esteem, resigned to capitulation and its final dissolution.
Finally, thanks to the “revelations” coming from Moscow, leading intellectuals could easily forget their interest, sympathy, and even the admiration that they had for Stalin’s USSR. Those intellectuals that had Trotsky as their reference point found particular comfort in those “revelations." For a long time it had been Trotsky who had embodied, in the eyes of the Soviet Union’s enemies, the infamy of communism, and he had particularly represented the “exterminations” or even the “Jewish extermination” (infra, ch. 5, § 15); as late as 1933, when he had already been in exile for several years, for Spengler, Trotsky continued to represent the “Bolshevik mass murderer” (Bolschewistischer Massenmörder).26 Beginning with the turning point at the Twentieth Party Congress of the CPSU, it was only Stalin and his closest collaborators who should be confined to the museum of horrors. Making its influence felt far beyond Trotskyist circles, the Khrushchev Report played as especially comforting role for certain Marxist left groups, who felt exonerated of the painful task of rethinking the theory of the Teacher [Marx] and its concrete impact on history. Certainly, instead of withering away in the countries governed by communists, the State appeared to be excessively all encompassing; far from disappearing, national identities played an increasingly important role in the conflicts that would lead to the division and, finally, to the end of the socialist camp; no one could make out any sign of the dissolution of money or the market, which tended to expand with economic development. Yes, all of this is beyond debate, but it’s the fault...of Stalin or of “Stalinism”! Therefore, there was no reason to question the hopes and certainties that had accompanied the Bolshevik Revolution, or that had their origin in Marx.
24. Gleason (1995), p. 121.
25. Cohen (1986), p. 13.
26. Spengler (1933), p. 86 note 1.
Despite opposing one another, those political-ideological fields developed their portraits of Stalin based on colossal and arbitrary abstractions. On the left, they proceed to the virtual elimination of the history of Bolshevism, and even more so the elimination of the history of Marxism, of the man who had for more time than any other exercised power in the country that emerged out of a revolution that was prepared and carried out according to the ideas of Marx and Engels. For their part, the anti-communists comfortably leave out both the history of Tsarist Russia as well as the history of the Second Thirty Years’ War, the context in which the tragic and contradictory development of Soviet Russia and the three decades of Stalin take place. And thus, each of the different political-ideological fields set off from Khrushchev’s speech to cultivate their own mythology, whether it’s the purity of the West or the purity of Marxism or Bolshevism. Stalinism was the terrible comparative term that allowed each of the antagonists to congratulate themselves, counterposing their own infinite moral and intellectual superiority.
Based on their notably different abstractions, these readings still end up producing some methodological convergences. In examining the terror without paying too much attention to the objective situation, they reduce it to the initiative of a single individual or of a limited leadership class, determined to reassert their absolute power by any means necessary. Beginning with that assumption, if Stalin could be compared to another leading political figure, it could only be to Hitler; consequently, in the aim of comprehending Stalin’s USSR, the only possible comparison was with Nazi Germany. It’s a theme that already emerged toward the end of the 1930s with Trotsky, who repeatedly resorts to the category of “totalitarian dictatorship” and, in the context of this genus, on the one hand he highlights the “Stalinist” type, and on the other hand the “fascist” type (and the Hitlerian type especially),27 resorting to a contextualization that later becomes the conventional thinking of the Cold War and the ruling ideology of today. 27. Trotsky (1988), p. 1285.
Is this line of argument convincing, or would it be better to turn to an overall comparison, without losing sight of either the history of Russia in its totality or the countries involved in the Second Thirty Years’ War? It’s true that this leads us to a comparison of countries and leaders that have very different characteristics among them; but is that diversity exclusively on account of their ideologies, or does the objective situation also play an important role, namely, the geopolitical location and past history of each country involved in the Second Thirty Years’ War? When we discuss Stalin, our thoughts immediately jump to the personalization of power, to the concentrationary universe, to the deportation of entire ethnic groups; but do these occurrences, aside from the USSR, only show themselves in Nazi Germany, or do they manifest themselves to different degrees―according to the greater or lesser severity of the state of emergency and its more or less prolonged duration―in other countries as well, including those with a more consolidated liberal tradition? Obviously, it’s necessary not to lose sight of the role of ideology; but can the ideology followed by Stalin really be compared to that which inspires Hitler? Or does the ideological comparison―when free of preconceptions―lead to completely unexpected results? Contrary to the theorists of purity, a political movement or a political regime can’t be judged based on the excellence of their declared motivating ideals; in the evaluation of these same ideals, we can’t ignore Wirkungsgeschichte, the “history of the effects” caused by them; but should that approach be applied to all sides, or only for the movement that found inspiration in Lenin and Marx?
These questions appear superfluous and even deceiving to those that overlook the problem of the inconsistency of Stalin’s image, basing themselves on the belief that Khrushchev had finally brought to light the hidden truth. However, a historian would show a total lack of methodological rigor if they sought to find in 1956 the year of the definitive and final revelation, ignoring the conflicts and interests that had driven the de-stalinization campaign and its diverse aspects, and that even earlier had motivated the sovietology of the Cold War. The radical contrasts between the different images of Stalin should encourage the historian to not only not absolutize a single one, but rather, to scrutinize them all.
Next1. How to Cast a God into Hell: The Khrushchev Report