I awaited Kotkin’s biography on Stalin – the first of three volumes – with much anticipation, since the blurb promises a balanced and humanised Stalin, which goes against standard accounts. It claims the book is nothing less than the definitive work of Stalin, even redefining the art of history itself.

To say I was profoundly disappointed is an understatement. Kotkin’s endless pages are nothing less than an ideological rant of the first order. He fails to understand Marxism at all and champions a clear liberal agenda that condemns Stalin as a dictator hungry for power and control. If only Stalin had seen the benefits of capitalism, much evil would have been avoided! The book is yet another work in the dreary list of efforts to demonise Stalin, rather than analysing the dynamic of veneration and demonisation itself. It may well be the first ideological salvo in a new Cold War.

In response to greetings from the Tiflis Railway Workshops, Stalin tries to hose down all of the adulation:

I must say in all conscience, comrades, that I do not deserve a good half of the flattering things that have been said here about me. I am, it appears, a hero of the October Revolution, the leader of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, the leader of the Communist International, a legendary warrior-knight and all the rest of it. That is absurd, comrades, and quite unnecessary exaggeration. It is the sort of thing that is usually said at the graveside of a departed revolutionary. But I have no intention of dying yet. (Works, volume 8, page 182)

By the second half of the 1920s, Stalin’s attention turned to the unfolding revolution in China. He is quite clear that it should be as much, if not centrally, an agrarian revolution of peasants, along with the relatively small working class (the idea of turning to the peasants was not merely Mao’s original idea). In the midst of one of his pieces on China, Stalin offers an insightful assessment of the English (he uses the strange term ‘British’) Labour Party:

Let us, for the sake of greater clarity, take the “Workers’ Party” in Britain (the “Labour Party”). We know that there is in Britain a special party of the workers that is based on the trade unions of the factory and office workers. No one hesitates to call it a workers’ party. It is called that not only in British, but in all other Marxist literature. But can it be said that this party is a real workers’ party, a class party of the workers, standing in opposition to the bourgeoisie? Can it be said that it is actually the party of one class, the working class, and not a party, say, of two classes? No, it cannot. Actually, the Labour Party in Britain is the party of a bloc of the workers and the urban petty bourgeoisie. Actually, it is the party of a bloc of two classes. And if it is asked whose influence is stronger in this party, that of the workers, who stand in opposition to the bourgeoisie, or that of the petty bourgeoisie, it must be said that the influence of the petty bourgeoisie predominates in this party. That indeed explains why the British Labour Party is actually an appendage of the bourgeois liberal party. (Works, volume 9, pages 253-54)

One of the more fascinating aspects of reading carefully through Stalin’s writings is what may be called the scriptural dynamic of spirit and letter. As 2 Corinthians 3:6 puts it, ‘the letter kills, but the spirit gives life’. Stalin is clearly on the side of the spirit in interpreting the texts of Marx and Lenin. Thus, Marx’s thought applies to emerging capitalism, while Lenin’s thought is Marxism in the age of imperialism. To emphasise his approach, he tells a story provided by Swedish socialists:

It was at the time of the sailors’ and soldiers’ revolt in the Crimea. Representatives of the navy and army came to the Social-Democrats and said: “For some years past you have been calling on us to revolt against tsarism. Well, we are now convinced that you are right, and we sailors and soldiers have made up our mints to revolt and now we have come to you for advice.” The Social-Democrats became flurried and replied that they couldn’t decide the question of a revolt without a special conference. The sailors intimated that there was no time to lose, that everything was ready, and that if they did not get a straight answer from the Social-Democrats, and if the Social-Democrats did not take over the direction of the revolt, the whole thing might collapse. The sailors and soldiers went away pending instructions, and the Social-Democrats called a conference to discuss the matter. They took the first volume of Capital, they took the second volume of Capital, and then they took the third volume of Capital, looking for some instruction about the Crimea, about Sevastopol, about a revolt in the Crimea. But they could not find a single, literally not a single instruction in all three volumes of Capital either about Sevastopol, or about the Crimea, or about a sailors’ and soldiers’ revolt. They turned over the pages of other works of Marx and Engels, looking for instructions—but not a single instruction could they find. What was to be done? Meanwhile the sailors had come expecting an answer. Well, the Social-Democrats had to confess that under the circumstances they were unable to give the sailors and soldiers any instructions. “And so the sailors’ and soldiers’ revolt collapsed.” (Works, volume 9, pages 97-98)

Most people would probably not know that the Communist Party of the USSR (Bolshevik) also had a policy on amputation. Stalin elaborates on the policy in 1925:

We are against amputation. We are against the policy of amputation. That does not mean that leaders will be permitted with impunity to give themselves airs and ride roughshod over the Party. No, excuse us from that. There will be no obeisances to leaders. (Voices: “Quite right!” Applause.) We stand for unity, we are against amputation. The policy of amputation is abhorrent to us. (Works, volume 7, p. 401)

Stalin may not have had the acerbic edge of Lenin’s letter style, but he prided himself on going straight to the point. With that in mind, here is a letter template from Stalin, drawing upon various phrases from his correspondence:

Comrade …,

I am very late in replying. You have a right to be angry with me, but you must bear in mind that I am unusually remiss as regards letters and correspondence in general. Don’t scold me for being straightforward and blunt concerning your report. Yes, comrade, I am straightforward and blunt; that’s true, I don’t deny it!

It is very praiseworthy that you should have wanted to use your own brains. But just look at the result: on the peace issue you used your own brains, and came a cropper; then in the trade-union discussion you again tried to use your own brains, and again you came a cropper; and now, I do not know whether you are using your own brains or borrowing someone else’s, but it appears that you have come a cropper this time too. I have a notion that certain comrades are not all there in their upper storeys.

Although this fantastic report needs no refutation because of its obvious absurdity, nevertheless, perhaps it will not be superfluous to state that this report is a gross mistake and must be attributed entirely to the author’s imagination. Why, then, do you continue to circulate all kinds of nonsense and fable?

In short, your report is a frightful dream, but thank God only a dream.

Instead, you should emphasise that our country can and must become a land of metal. After all, the party has been forged out of hard steel and tempered in battle. Without such an approach, our work will become meaningless, criminal and futile, which will give us the right, or rather will force us, to go anywhere, even to the devil himself.

In closing, comrade, let me say that I do not undertake to prophecy.

God grant us a new year every day!

With communist greetings,

J. V. Stalin

(from Works, vol. 4, p. 288; vol. 5, pp. 100-1, 226, 386; vol. 6, pp. 36, 201, 285; vol 7, pp. 47, 133, 191-92, 372-73)

Stalin writing 01

Not only did Stalin study Holy Scripture for almost 6 years at the Tiflis Spiritual Seminary, but he also made annotations on the Bible in his library, priding himself on memorising long sections. And it shows, as in this lyrical appeal at fourteenth congress of 1925:

But even if we do not receive outside assistance we shall not become despondent, we shall not cry out for help, we shall not abandon our work (applause) and we shall not be daunted by difficulties. Whoever is weary, whoever is scared by difficulties, whoever is losing his head, let him make way for those who have retained their courage and staunchness. (Applause.) We are not the kind of people to be scared by difficulties. We are Bolsheviks, we have been steeled by Lenin, and we do not run away from difficulties, but face them and overcome them. (Voices: “Quite right!” Applause.) (Works, volume 7, pp. 358-59)

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