During the civil war (the white armies were sponsored by the ‘entente’), one of Stalin’s many roles as a military commissar was to oversee the restoration of vital rail lines. Imagine him as transport minister today!

To Comrade Lenin.
I am hurrying to the front, and writing only on business.
1) The railway south of Tsaritsyn has not yet been restored. I am firing or telling off all who deserve it, and I hope we shall have it restored soon. You may rest assured that we shall spare nobody, neither ourselves nor others, and shall deliver the grain in spite of everything. (Collected Works, vol. 4, p. 120).

Actually, a train was later named after him:

Iosef Stalin train 03

Stalin 03

In his fascinating piece, ‘The Foundations of Leninism’, Stalin decisively claims Lenin’s heritage against the arrogant quirkiness of Trotsky. Among other gems is what Stalin calls the ‘Leninist style in work’. Now what does that mean?

It has two specific features:
a) Russian revolutionary sweep and
b) American efficiency.
The style of Leninism consists in combining these two specific features in Party and state work. Russian revolutionary sweep is an antidote to inertia, routine, conservatism, mental stagnation and slavish submission to ancient traditions. Russian revolutionary sweep is the life giving force which stimulates thought, impels things forward, breaks the past and opens up perspectives. Without it no progress is possible. But Russian revolutionary sweep has every chance of degenerating in practice into empty “revolutionary” Manilovism if it is not combined with American efficiency in work.

American efficiency … is an antidote to “revolutionary” Manilovism and fantastic scheme concocting. American efficiency is that indomitable force which neither knows nor recognises obstacles; which with its business-like perseverance brushes aside all obstacles; which continues at a task once started until it is finished, even if it is a minor task; and without which serious constructive work is inconceivable. But American efficiency has every chance of degenerating into narrow and unprincipled practicalism if it is not combined with Russian revolutionary sweep.

Works, volume 6, pp. 194-95

Lenin subbotnik

Why use ten when two commandments are enough (Matthew 22:35-40)? So also Stalin:

The first commandment: Don’t allow yourselves to be provoked by the counter-revolutionaries; arm yourselves with restraint and self-control; save your strength for the coming struggle; permit no premature actions.

The second commandment: Rally more closely around our Party; close your ranks in face of the assault of our innumerable enemies; keep the banner flying; encourage the weak, rally the stragglers and enlighten the unawakened. (Collected Works, vol. 3, p. 113)


Stalin on Time Magazine 1939 and 1942

The first was in 1939, although the reason was ambivalent: ‘Whether Europe’s new era will end in nationalist chaos, good or bad internationalism, or what not, the era will be new—and the end of the old era will have been finally precipitated by a man whose domain lies mostly outside Europe. This Joseph Stalin did by dramatically switching the power balance of Europe one August night. It made Joseph Stalin man of 1939. History may not like him but history cannot forget him.’

By the end of 1942, the magazine was echoing the growing world-wide acclaim of Stalin, especially as the victory at Stalingrad and turning point of the Second World War was becoming clear: ‘The year 1942 was a year of blood and strength. The man whose name means steel in Russian, whose few words of English include the American expression ‘tough guy’ was the man of 1942. Only Joseph Stalin fully knew how close Russia stood to defeat in 1942, and only Joseph Stalin fully knew how he brought Russia through. But the whole world knew what the alternative would have been. The man who knew it best of all was Adolf Hitler, who found his past accomplishments turning into dust.’

No less iconic than Joseph Stalin’s moustache was his pipe. But what did he put in it? Once he settled on his favoured cherry root pipe, his tobacco of choice was ‘Herzegovina Flor.’ So close did the connection become that the tobacco was also known as ‘Stalin’s Choice’. But this was no ordinary tobacco, for it appeared only in cigarettes. Stalin would take two cigarettes out of a box and shred them into his pipe. Why? Pipe tobacco at the time was cheap and rough and he had become rather fond of the flavour of the cigarettes when he was a young trainee priest and revolutionary.

So what was ‘Herzogovina Flor’? The smokes were produced at the Moscow ‘Java’ factory, which was originally established by Samuel Gabai, from Kharkov, in the 19th century. Gabai’s idea was to produce a tobacco like no other, so he found a tobacco plant in Java, grew it in Herzegovina and then shipped it to Moscow. The products initially became favoured by the elite nobility and fledgling bourgeoisie. So Stalin, as the leader of the first worker’s state was in a quandary. If he smoked the cigarettes, he would give the wrong impression. So he opted for the common man’s pipe, but since he couldn’t tear himself away from the flavour of the tobacco, he decided to use it to fill his pipe. Eventually, the elite origins of the tobacco were forgotten and it became indelibly associated with the man himself. Many others followed suit, among them the famous soviet composer, Mayakovsky.

Of course, with the propagation of the ‘black legend’ of Stalin, Herzegovina Flor sadly fell out of favour. Now it is produced in small amounts, although it is still notable for its rich aroma and high tar content.

Stalin's Tobacco 01


Stalin's Tobacco 02a

In a forthcoming work, I propose to investigate Stalin through an unexpected approach: his intimate relation with religion. Hopefully, it will play a small role in the reassessments of Stalin under way by Losurdo, Roberts et al.

Chapter One: At the Spiritual Seminary

Stalin is unique among world communist leaders in at least one respect: he studied theology for five years at the Tiflis Spiritual Seminary, the training college for priests in the Russian Orthodox Church. He did so during a deeply formative time of his life, from the age of 15 to the verge of his 20th birthday (1894-1899). One of the best students, he was known for his intellect and phenomenal memory. And he was notably devout, attending all worship services and even leading the choir. Yet, despite the importance of this theological study in forming Stalin’s mind and life, few if any take the time to analyse what Stalin studied and how he did so. Thus, this chapter investigates closely Stalin’s studies, especially the theological content of his study with an eye on the themes that would emerge later in his thought. The training was thorough. In the earlier years, he studied both secular and theological subjects, such as Russian literature, secular history, mathematics, church singing and biblical studies. By the later years, the focus was more intensely theological, with ecclesiastical history, liturgy, homiletics, dogma, comparative theology, moral theology, practical pastoral work, didactics, and the two staples: church singing and biblical studies. Years later, Stalin annotated the religious works in his library, and memorised long passages from the Bible. He also refused to include anti-religious works, calling them ‘antireligious waste-paper’. But I am particularly interested in the continuity (rather than the discontinuity) between his theological knowledge and the activism in which he increasingly engaged. Stalin left the college just before the final examinations in 1899, of his own will. But the experience had formed him deeply. In revolutionary circles he was for many years known as ‘The Priest’.

Chapter Two: Affirmative Action: Religions and the Church

In the early years of the Second World War, Stalin made a historic compact with the Russian Orthodox Church. In return for support of the war effort that eventually defeated Hitler, Stalin allowed the reopening of tens of thousands of churches and the re-establishment of the church’s leadership hierarchy. (These developments are far more complex than the common argument that a morally bankrupt government sought to harness the church’s influence to counter the Nazis.) However, one condition applied: the church was to respect the ‘affirmative action’ that already applied to ethnic minorities. Stalin was the architect of the policy of fostering the languages, cultures, education, and self-government of the many ‘nations’ or ethnic groups in the USSR. This policy included religion: the Muslim sharia in the south was permitted, Buddhism in the east was fostered, and anti-Semitism was vigorously opposed, with many Jews in the government apparatus and heavy penalties for anti-Semitism. The old imperialism of the Russian church was to be a thing of past.

It is not for nothing that from this period the religious iconography of Stalin began, fuelled by rumours of a ‘mysterious retreat’ in 1941.

Chapter Three: Writing Like a Poet

This chapter digs deeper into Stalin’s writing, beginning with his habitual pattern of biblical and religious allusions. Above all, I am interested in his poetic style, especially in light of his early publications of widely-appreciated poetry. His later texts reveal subtle variations in the balanced sentences, his rhetorical if not homiletical ability, his evocation of imagery, and the ability to tell a story – most notably in the creation of the ‘political myth’ of the communist party and the victory of the October Revolution.

Chapter Four: Modalities of Dialectics

Multiple modulations of dialectics appear in Stalin’s works. These include the staples of subject-object and form-content, but also an early articulation of what would later be called ‘constitutive resistance’ (Negri). In this case, the resistance of the workers becomes the determining feature of the constantly changing tactics of the capitalists and the bourgeoisie – initially on a national level but later in a world-historical form. The two major developments in dialectics are in terms transcendence and immanence, and in a dialectic of crisis. The former refers to the relations between workers and the communist party, between theory and action, and between the party and the multi-ethnic state. The latter – dialectics of crisis – emerges in a complex pattern, particularly in light of the civil war, sustained international opposition, and the dictatorship of the proletariat. The key to this dialectic is that the closer’s one’s gaol becomes, the more ferocious become internal and external opponents. This is at heart a theological dialectics. The more grace is apparent, the more active do the forces of evil become.

Chapter Five: Towards a Materialist Doctrine of Evil

Crisis dialectics then leads to what I call a materialist doctrine of evil. This doctrine, worked out more in practice than theory – profoundly challenges the Enlightenment-inspired assumption of inherent human goodness so characteristic of many socialist movements. It entails a recalibration of the crucial opposition of good and evil, now in terms of socialism and capitalism, of workers and bosses, and of international politics. Above all, the Red Terror is the practical manifestation of this doctrine, in which good and evil are internal, with the one generating more of the other.

Chapter Six: Veneration and Demonisation

No other political leader has been – and continues to be – as venerated and as reviled as Stalin. This is so in Russia, where he is reviled by some but revered by many others (even to the point of religious observances in his native Georgia), and internationally, where he functions either in terms of the reductio ad Hitlerum or as the architect of a stunning victory in WWII and in the construction of socialism. This chapter argues that such polarisation has a religious dynamic as well as a political one, in Cold War and post-Cold War contexts. In order to understand that polarisation, I trace the path from his near universal appreciation at the close of WWII to the growth of a ‘black legend’ after his death (thanks to Khrushchev’s politically motivated ‘secret report’). I also focus on the dynamics of this polarisation by relating it to theological issues, Lenin’s veneration, the crucial role in extra-economic compulsion in the construction of socialism, the relation with Stalin’s dialectics of intensified crisis, and particularly the central role of Stalin in assessing the continued validity of socialism.

One of curious features of the self-described leaders of the renewal of communism is a type of non-party communism. It appears in the collection of contributions called The Idea of Communism, published by Verso in 2010 and arising from a conference in London. Alain Badiou and Bruno Bosteels, among others, seem drawn to this curious idea, even suggesting that a ‘communist party’ or a ‘communist state’ are oxymorons. As might be expected, Stalin’s piece called ‘Non-Party Simpletons’ comes to mind:

Non-party progressivism has become the fashion. Such is the nature of the [European] intellectual—he must have a fashion.

What is non-partyism?

Non-partyism glosses over the antagonism of interests, it shuts its eyes to their struggle.

Every class has its own party, with a special programme and a special complexion. Parties direct the struggle of classes. Without parties there would be not a struggle but chaos, absence of clarity and confusion of interests. But non-partyism abhors clarity and definiteness, it prefers nebulousness and absence of programme.

Glossing over of class antagonisms, hushing up of the class struggle, absence of a definite complexion, hostility to all programme, gravitation towards chaos and the confusion of interests—such is non-partyism.

What is the aim of non-partyism?

To unite the ununitable, to bring about the impossible.

To unite bourgeois and proletarians in an alliance, to erect a bridge between the landlords and the peasants, to haul a wagon with the aid of a swan, a crab and a pike—this is what non-partyism aims at.

Non-partyism realises that it is incapable of uniting the ununitable and therefore says with a sigh:

“If ‘ifs’ and ‘ans’

Were pots and pans. . . .”

But “ifs” and “ans” are not pots and pans and so non-partyism is always left in the cart, always remains the simpleton.

Non-partyism is like a man without a head on his shoulders, or—rather—like a man with a turnip instead of a head.

(Collected Works, volume 2, pp. 235-36)

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