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Stalin’s shadow

Last month was the 50th anniversary of Stalin’s death in March 1953. MANNY THAIN reviews the press coverage of this event.

JOSEPH STALIN, the man who had terrorised the Soviet Union for almost 30 years, was pronounced dead on 5 March 1953, aged 73. Recent evidence suggests that he may have been killed by fellow members of the ruling elite – somehow administering a dose of the anticoagulant, warfarin, and leaving him to die from internal bleeding. It is said that medical attention was not sought until it was far too late. Those around his successor, Nikita Khrushchev, feared another major purge of the leadership was being planned. Stalin’s closest henchman, Lavrenti Beria (head of the secret police), was summarily tried and executed shortly afterwards, to tidy things up.

The half-century anniversary was used by the British and US media, in particular, to attack socialist ideas. Stalinist-type dictatorships are portrayed as inevitable consequences of revolutionary struggle. ‘The left’ (simplistically represented as a single bloc) stands accused of downplaying the viciousness of Stalinism, including ignoring anti-Jewish purges. Parallels drawn between Stalin and Saddam Hussein are being used in a desperate attempt to discredit today’s anti-war movement. Above all, the message is that Stalinism ‘proves’ that it is impossible to radically change society.

At the time of the Bolshevik revolution in October 1917, Russia was an extremely impoverished country, ravaged by the first world war. Soon after, imperialist armies invaded from all sides. The priority was to defend the Soviet Union until other workers’ states were established and international socialist federations could provide material assistance and solidarity. The revolutionary wave which swept the world, however, did not result in working-class control of any other country. The Soviet Union was isolated.

It was impossible under those conditions to introduce a system of democratic working-class control, management and planning. Workers were needed in the factories, with production geared towards the defence of the new workers’ state, providing (at best) subsistence levels of food and goods. Working-class people were also required on the frontline. As they became less and less able to participate in the running of society, the administration of the state fell to a relatively small number of people. Step by step, a bureaucratic elite crystallised. It consolidated its power through carrying out a bloody political counter-revolution, removing all the elements of workers’ democracy achieved in the 1917 revolution.

Once established, the regime’s primary objective was the preservation of its power and privileged position. An increasingly rigid, centralised control spread over everything from economic and foreign policy to social and cultural life. The repression grew harsher. Anyone perceived as a threat to Stalin and the bureaucracy was eliminated.

This often led to sudden shifts in policy, sometimes with devastating results. The Soviet Union’s remarkable industrial development had given the world a glimpse of the potential for economic planning – transforming an economically backward state into a world superpower. But it came at an immense human cost. Millions of people died of starvation after the forced collectivisation of land after 1927. Systematic purges saw millions of others arrested, tortured, dispatched to labour camps or executed. The total number of Stalin’s victims is incalculable. Many estimates fall around 20 million dead.

The media has focused on the suffering. It is also important, however, to recognise the heroic struggle against the regime. Above all, Leon Trotsky – one of the leaders of the revolution alongside Vladimir Lenin – organised the Left Opposition against the regime on a programme of workers’ democracy and internationalism. Ultimately, the Soviet Union’s isolation as the world’s only workers’ state was an insurmountable obstacle. In August 1940, after twelve years in exile, Trotsky was brutally murdered by one of Stalin’s agents in Mexico.

Many commentators have remarked on the shock, sometimes hysteria, which greeted Stalin’s death. He had loomed over every aspect of people’s lives – the ‘cult of the personality’. But the dictator’s demise was a joyous occasion for many. Nadezhda Levitsky, now 78 years old, was in a labour camp when she heard the news: "I remember one day a Tatar girl told me fearfully that Stalin was ill. Then another shouted: ‘I wish he’d die like a dog’. Everyone fell silent. But the next day, we were working in the fields, cutting out a line of trees, when the same girl came running towards us, screaming that he really was dead. We started hugging and kissing each other. We were so happy as we knew that something would change. We stopped working immediately that day. And the next". (The Guardian, 5 March 2003)

Despite the bloody trail of shattered hopes and lives, the anniversary of Stalin’s death saw hundreds of Russian people file past his monument in Moscow’s Red Square. A survey quoted in the International Herald Tribune found that 6% of Russians ‘approved of Stalin’ in 1990, rising to 32.9% in 2001 (11 March 2003). That is because of the cataclysmic collapse of the Russian economy since capitalism has been restored. The last decade has seen an immense widening of the wealth gap, with extreme poverty at the bottom and untouchable, gangster capitalists gorging themselves at the top. The Guardian journalist, Jonathan Freedland, wrote: "Economic hardship, chaos and corruption in government and collapsing health and welfare systems have fed a sense of hopelessness: 67% tell pollsters that the last decade is the worst they can remember". (5 March 2003)

Another theme of media’s anniversary coverage has been an attempt to draw a link between Stalin and Saddam Hussein. Apparently, Stalin’s number one fan is Saddam. A Wall Street Journal editorial stated: "Many who have been to Saddam’s personal library attest to it being replete with books on Stalin. The Iraqi has crammed on the great man’s techniques of terror and studiously applied them. From the use of show trials and purges to the cult of the personality, Stalin lives on in Saddam". (5 March 2003)

Although the methods of repression may be similar, their respective systems were founded on fundamentally different lines. The former Soviet Union was based on a non-capitalist, nationalised, planned economy, and the task facing the working class was to wrest control from the bureaucracy and implement workers’ democracy on the existing economic base – a political revolution. Saddam’s regime built links with the former Soviet Union and nationalised the oil industry and other key sectors – and vastly increased arms expenditure. It was a form of military state capitalism, still at root a capitalist economy. In Iraq a social revolution is required to transform the economy from one based on private property, dominated by big business and landlords, to one based on workers’ control and management.

As with Saddam, the West’s attitudes towards the Soviet Union shifted. In the early years after the revolution, its very existence represented a mortal threat to the whole capitalist system. Once the Stalinist bureaucracy had been consolidated – Lenin died in January 1924, with Trotsky forced into exile in January 1928 – it became increasingly clear that the regime’s survival was more important to its rulers than the emancipation of the working class internationally. Stalin was ‘pragmatic’ in his dealings with the West – note the Stalin/Hitler pact before the second world war and the Yalta conference with Winston Churchill and Franklin D Roosevelt in 1945 to carve up post-war Germany.

That approach was rewarded by the imperialist powers. Nick Cohen observed: "The establishment became pro-Soviet when the Soviet Union became Britain’s ally in the second world war. The Times switched from admiring Hitler to admiring Stalin". (The Observer, 9 March 2003) In the International Herald Tribune, Serge Schmemann writes: "The New York Times of March 6 1953, in which Stalin’s death got a banner headline, made no mention of the purges or the gulag. But it did declare that his death ‘brought to an end the career of one of the great figures of modern times – a man whose name stands second to none as the organiser and builder of the great state structure the world knows as the Soviet Union’." (11 March 2003)

Capitalist powers have no principles when it comes to working with dictatorships, so long as their interests are served.

Cohen’s real anger, however, is directed against ‘the left’ – to justify his support for the war against Iraq: "Yet virtually everyone I meet doesn’t want to hear about Saddam’s crimes or read the fraternal requests for support from democrats and socialists in the Iraqi opposition. Like the Left of the 1930s, they put their hands over their ears and scream whenever either subject is mentioned".

The Stalinist regimes used brutal methods to maintain their control, including forced mass deportations and anti-Jewish purges. And there were many apologists in the West for their acts. The so-called ‘Communist’ Parties were mass organisations in many countries and they toed the Moscow line. Many social democratic parties and other groups and individuals backed the Stalinist state, especially when it came to foreign policy. It is, however, totally misleading to present ‘the left’ as if it were some homogenous bloc.

Another nauseating mantra is the binding of Lenin to Stalin: Stalin became Communist Party general secretary in 1922, Lenin died in 1924 and Stalin took over. Night follows day. Here, the champions of ‘Western democracy’ join hands with Stalin’s apologists. In order to bolster his authority in the Soviet Union, Stalin cloaked himself in the revolutionary mantle of Lenin, whose political activity was severely limited in the last couple of years of his life due to ill health. The history of the Bolshevik party and the revolution was systematically falsified, exaggerating Stalin’s role and minimising the contributions of others, especially Trotsky, who was recognised as Lenin’s closest comrade. Prominent Bolsheviks were got rid of.

Without offering any evidence for his assertions, Simon Sebag Montefiore, in the Financial Times, brings the fabrication up to date: "When the Baathists took power in 1968, Saddam played a role of brutal troubleshooter to his political master, General al-Bakr, that was very similar to the role Stalin played to Lenin". (1 March 2003)

One reference to the conflict between Lenin and Stalin could be found in the Financial Times, however: in its Food & Drink section, in a throwaway remark by Andrew Jack. "When Lenin predicted the suffering to come under his successor Stalin, with the words, ‘That cook will concoct nothing but peppery dishes’, it was no accident that he chose a culinary metaphor". (1 March 2003) No accident because Georgian food is spicy. But Lenin was not writing a cookbook on his deathbed. One of Lenin’s last documents was a ‘testament’, in which he warned of the dangers of the encroaching bureaucracy, specifically naming Stalin. In it, he proposed a joint campaign with Trotsky to counter this process.

A number of commentators have pointed to the damage done by Stalinism to people’s perceptions of socialism. Robert Manne wrote that "it was Stalin, more than anyone else, who cut the utopian 19th-century idea of socialism from its humanitarian moorings and transformed it into a 20th century nightmare". (Sydney Morning Herald, 6 March 2003)

Jonathan Freedland developed that point: "The fear is that any revolutionary ambition for society will always end in disaster, that any goal larger than gradual reform will lead to a bloodbath – and it is Stalin who stands as the cold, unbudging precedent. This has been disabling for the left". (The Guardian, 5 March 2003)

The collapse of the Stalinist regimes and the attendant pro-capitalist propaganda onslaught set back socialist consciousness internationally. That was amplified after the Gulf war of 1990-91 when George Bush senior, then US president, pronounced a ‘New World Order’. Francis Fukuyama, a US political commentator, famously announced the ‘end of history’. In the decade since then, the world has become more unequal and unstable than ever: economic turmoil, Middle Eastern conflict, 9/11 terrorist attacks on the US, war in Afghanistan, invasion and occupation of Iraq…

Stalinism was a grotesque distortion of socialism – almost unrecognisable from the original ideal. However, the fact that it was based on a centralised planned economy and represented a serious military threat to the West meant that Stalinism provided a counterbalance to capitalism. Once it imploded, the neo-liberal offensive ran rampant around the globe. The task of Marxists in the 1990s was to continue to explain the case for a genuine socialist alternative.

The anti-globalisation, anti-capitalist protests and partial general strikes seen over the last few years, and now an unprecedented global anti-war movement, show there is a new generation prepared to fight against the injustices of this rotten, class-ridden system. The ideas of genuine, democratic socialism offer a way out of today’s misery and inequality. And can finally put an end to Stalin’s poisonous legacy.


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