A Communist should have largeness of mind and he should be staunch and active, looking upon the interests of the revolution as his very life and subordinating his personal interests to those of the revolution; always and everywhere he should adhere to principle and wage a tireless struggle against all incorrect ideas and actions, so as to consolidate the collective life of the Party and strengthen the ties between the Party and the masses; he should be more concerned about the Party and the masses than about any private person, and more concerned about others than about himself. Only thus can he be considered a Communist.
Contrary to popular opinion, I’m not a fan of Stalin. My ideological orientation is fundamentally based in the work of Lenin, Trotsky and Sam Marcy. With that said, there is a world of difference between a Marxist-Leninist critique of Stalin (and the USSR during the period when he was its top leader) and the typical “Trotskyist” attacks, which differ little from those of the bourgeoisie.
The rhetoric of most folks who identify with Trotsky against Stalin (and this is certainly true on Tumblr) reduces itself to: “He was awful. He was dictator. He killed millions of people. He destroyed the Russian Revolution. Damn I hate that guy!”
Well, friends, it’s not so simple.
As Vince Copeland, a longtime member of the U.S. Socialist Workers Party who later became co-leader and founding editor of Workers World, wrote his 1975 article “The History of USSR-China Relations”:
“The USSR, like the People’s Republic of China and other socialist countries, is not the political expression of a group of individual leaders, but an objective complex of concrete social institutions that emerged from the revolutionary action of millions of people. These millions were under the leadership of a Marxist party, to be sure, but they physically smashed not only the old ruling class, but also its armies, prisons, courts, and property relations. This being the case, a number of “bad” leaders could later put a braking effect upon the full benefits of the new social institutions including the effect of social backwardness on many questions. But they could not by a mere act of political will turn these institutions back into their opposite, that is, capitalist, imperialist institutions.”
In this article Copeland was addressing the then-prevalent view of Western Maoists that capitalism had been restored in the USSR following the rise of Khrushchev. The analysis, however, is an equally sound answer to the typical “Trotskyist” views on Stalin.
Trotsky’s writings are full of personal invective against Stalin, it’s true. This is understandable considering the struggle between them over the path of the world-historic revolution they both participated in, Trotsky as a co-leader and public spokesperson, Stalin in a background role. It’s understandable in light of the persecution Trotsky and his followers were subjected to, his exile and eventual assassination.
Nevertheless, if you actually read Trotsky’s writings on the USSR, the invective is subordinate to the Marxist analysis of the CLASS FORCES at play and the development of the CLASS STRUGGLE inside the Soviet Union and (especially) the rest of the world.
Stalin was not merely a caricatured “bad guy.” His rise and his views were predicated on real obstacles faced by the Revolution; in particular, the inability of the European proletariat to seize power in the post World War I period and come to the aid of the Soviets, which forced the Bolsheviks to a) reintroduce capitalist relations in the countryside, b) appease the middle and big peasants, and c) rely on the specialists and experts left over from czarism to overcome the devastation of the Civil War and international isolation.
Had Stalin died in 1917, someone else would have played a similar role in post-revolutionary politics – most likely Zinoviev or Kamenev, who were cut from much the same cloth as Stalin in terms of being inclined to opportunism (as Trotsky so clearly delineated in his “Lessons of October”).
Even as late as 1939-40, when Trotsky knew the net was closing in on him and his end was near, he continued to demand that his followers take a revolutionary class view of the USSR in relation to the oncoming World War, as demonstrated in the marvelous collection “In Defense of Marxism.”
Now let’s talk about why Western Trotskyist Stalin-bashing is racist and tinged with imperialist privilege.
Yes, that’s right.
Throughout most of the world, among nationally-oppressed communists, Stalin is recognized as a legitimate leader and often upheld (even while his deficiencies as a Marxist are criticized). Why is this?
For one, Stalin was the FIRST NATIONALLY OPPRESSED PERSON to lead a socialist country.
Stalin was from Georgia. Although we may not think of Georgians as people of color in today’s global context, in the early 20th century Georgians were an oppressed nationality of Central Asia ruled by the Great Russian Czar.
So to nationally oppressed peoples, particularly in Asia but also throughout the world, it was a STUNNING DEVELOPMENT to see a Georgian take the reins of the first socialist state in the heart of formerly Czarist Russia. Stalin was also internationally known by this time as the writer of the basic text on “Marxism and the National Question,” which Lenin had assigned him to. In this sense, Stalin’s ascension very much embodied the Leninist principals on the National Question that had drawn many nationally oppressed revolutionaries to Bolshevism in the first place.
You and I may not typically think of this when we think of Stalin. But you’d better believe that communists in India, China, Indonesia, the Philippines, and many other places do.
I will go so far as to say this: From the start of the Cold War in the late 1940s up to the present day, Stalin-bashing by “Trotskyists” and social democrats is equivalent to the kind of demonization leveled against nationalist and socialist leaders of color in order to justify the imperialist destruction of national sovereignty (Mao, Malcolm X, Huey Newton, Saddam, Gadhafi, Kim Jong Il, etc., etc. – take your pick).
What are some other reasons that Stalin is seen as a genuine leader by revolutionaries around the globe? He led the USSR through the Second World War and its decisive role in smashing fascism in Europe. Against seemingly impossible odds, he led the country’s post-war reconstruction into an industrial and military super-power. He was seen (rightly or wrongly) as playing an important role in supporting the triumph of the revolutionary forces in Asia after the war (particularly China and North Korea). Under his leadership, the USSR developed a credible atomic deterrent that prevent the U.S. imperialists from overrunning Eastern Europe and Asia.
Now, as we’ve already said, these achievements were the result of great social forces, not the directions of one leader or group of leaders. And we can pick apart each one and see where Stalin’s policies were deficient or actually undermined these victories. (Mao and the Chinese communists later did this extensively while continuing to uphold Stalin’s legacy as against the Kruschev and post-Kruschev leaders of the USSR.) But these achievements were real, had real, lasting impacts on the lives and struggles of the oppressed, and happened under Stalin’s leadership.
Revolutions are not dinner parties, as Mao famously said. The deck was stacked against the Russian Revolution from day 1 but it was a fundamental event that changed the course of history and continues to inspire millions worldwide to struggle for fundamental social change. Stalin played a centrist role throughout his career – never a revolutionary communist but never a capitalist roader either. His defects and his accomplishments were rooted in real class forces under his feet, including his awful positions on abortion, queer rights, “peaceful coexistence” and many other things.
Comrades in the 21st century who truly want to uphold Lenin and Trotsky are not doing them or the working class any favors by engaging in Stalin-bashing. Criticize particular positions or policies, yes; but don’t join in the imperialist chorus.