Towards a more balanced assessment of Ioseb Besarionis dze Jughashvili

Ioseb Besarionis dze Jughashvili, or Stalin as he is known, is so often the subject of either demonisation or veneration. The result is that few rigorous and balanced assessments can be found. Let us see if we can make a small beginning with the following.

Let me be clear, Stalin made plenty of mistakes, but was also responsible for at least two significant achievements.

The first was the collectivisation drive in the early 1930s. Collectivisation? Yes, since it was unfinished business from the revolution.

For the sake of the ‘civil’ war and the need to get the Soviet economy kicking, as well as come up with the bare modicum of grain needed to ward off the worst of the famines produced by the ‘civil’ war, Lenin relinquished his desire for collectivisation. So, when the NEP was winding down in the late 20s, Stalin issued an order in 1927 that collectivisation was to restart. Why? Grain production was falling short by about 20 million tons, needed to feed Russia itself, largely due to old peasant methods of agriculture that were becoming increasingly inefficient. However, the order was ignored and the shortages got worse, kulaks (rich peasants) began stockpiling grain and pushing up the prices, so the next year Stalin announced collectivisation would be enforced. In response, the peasants burned crops and barns and killed their animals. Stalin followed Lenin’s path for a short while, allowing small-hold production to continue. But in 1932 he lost patience and ordered full enforcement. By the end of the year, 67% of farms were collectivised, but peasants continued to burn crops and stockpile. Famine got worse in 1932-1933, so the Politburo got serious: kulaks were rounded up and – following the tried and true Russian method of more than two centuries – were sent off to populate (and perish in) Siberia. Meanwhile, by 1939, 99% of Russian farms were collectivised, modernised and were using machinery.

So was it a failure? Let’s look at the following statistics:

In 1928, 73 million tons of grain were produced.

In 1933, at the height of the struggle, 69 million tons  were grown.

However, by 1937, the yield was 97 million tons.

In other words, on the eve of the Second World War, production had increased by more than 24 million tons, or by about 33%. Along with twin industrialisation drive – both part of the socialist offensive – this put the USSR in a very strong position to resist Hitler’s attack in 1941.

Before we get to that, however, let us look at the political situation. By the late twenties, Stalin was still following Bolshevik policy outlined by Lenin: avoid violence and allowing the peasants to keep small-hold farms and use old methods. In opposition were Trotsky and Zinoviev, who urged collectivisation. But now Stalin outfoxed the left opposition, taking over their policy with gusto. They were left with no room to move.

What about the war? I have already posted on this, but now a few more details. We can thank the man with the fried egg on his forehead, Gorbachev, for this one, since he opened the archives to foreign historians. Since then, they have been rewriting the history of World War II, since the Soviets kept far better records than anyone. Up until then, three factors had influenced the understanding of the war. First, Churchill in his ‘history’ had played down the Soviet involvement, arguing that the war was won on the western front (Churchill appropriately won the Nobel Prize for ‘literature’ – it was largely a fabrication). Second, western historians relied on what the German generals told them. Good move that one, since we got fables about the Russian rabble, unarmed soldiers, machine-gun fodder and so on. And they stressed Hitler’s mismanagement, the size of the Red Army, and that their supply-lines were too long. Incidentally, the USA employed former Wehrmacht officers to provide them with information on the new Cold War enemy. One of them, Franz Halder, was Hitler’s chief of the Army General Staff from 1938 to 1942 and was complicit in the effort to wipe out Jews, gypsies, gays and communists. After the war, he was head of the project on the USSR in the US Army’s Historical Division. And for his wonderful contribution, John F. Kennedy gave him the Meritorious Civilian Service. Third, Krushchev is at fault here as well, since in his famous speech in 1956 he blamed Stalin for everything, with the result that Soviet historians came up with their own version of the war: despite Stalin’s idiocy, the good, solid Russian people won the war on their own.

All of that is now so much rubbish. While the Left has been focusing on politics and avoiding Stalin, the war historians have been providing a completely different picture of Stalin during the war. David Glantz, Mark Harrison, Nikolai Litvin, Anthony Beavor, Catherine Merridale, Rodric Braithwaite, Omer Bartov, Wolfram Wette (who has showed that German officers in general and not merely the SS freely engaged in murder and genocide), Christopher Browning, Saul Friedländer, Richard Overy, Evan Mawdsley, Geoffrey Roberts and Norman Davies – all have been using the wealth of material now available.

The result: it was Stalin’s war and he won it. Over 400 divisions battled on a 1600 km front for four years, compared to 15 each for the Germans and allies on the western front at its most intense time. 88% of German military dead fell on the eastern front, and the battle that broke the Wehrmacht was Kursk, in July and August of 1943. Here the Russians showed everyone how to beat a blitzkrieg – with a meticulously planned, flexible and in-depth defence. By comparison, the British, American, Australian, Canadian etc contribution on the western front was a sideshow.

However, Stalin didn’t start off well, trying to run the whole show himself, misjudging German attacks in 1941 and 1942, and launching ineffective counter-attacks. Then he sat back, puffed through a few pipes full and had a good think. The result was a transformed man: he called on his most creative generals, engaged in extraordinary efforts to rally the people, and became adept at high diplomacy. For example, at the end of the war at the Yalta Conference (4-11 February, 1945), he had obtained information that the good Winston Churchill didn’t mind a tipple or three. So Churchill was plied with grog, got plastered, and Stalin got a very good deal indeed.

Meanwhile, back in 1942, a well-organised, equipped, supplied and trained Red Army began winning battles, from Stalingrad onwards. They waged increasingly sophisticated ‘deep operations’, namely, rapid, multiply-arms advances that pushed deep into the Wehrmacht’s rear, inflicting creative and utterly debastating defeats, much greater than any army in the war. And the responsibility for these stunning succcesses was Stalin’s. He fostered and was part of a dynamic, flexible and innovative team, discussing, debating and planning each move. So much so that historians now use phrases such as ‘awesome military achievement’ and ‘greatest military victory in history’.

20 thoughts on “Towards a more balanced assessment of Ioseb Besarionis dze Jughashvili

  1. “In 1928, 73 million tons of grain were produced.
    In 1933, at the height of the struggle, 69 million tons were grown.
    However, by 1937, the yield was 97 million tons”

    “Who built Thebes of the 7 gates ?
    In the books you will read the names of kings.
    Did the kings haul up the lumps of rock ?

    And Babylon, many times demolished,
    Who raised it up so many times ?

    In what houses of gold glittering Lima did its builders live ?
    Where, the evening that the Great Wall of China was finished, did the masons go?

    Great Rome is full of triumphal arches.
    Who erected them ?

    Over whom did the Caesars triumph ?
    Had Byzantium, much praised in song, only palaces for its inhabitants ?

    Even in fabled Atlantis, the night that the ocean engulfed it,
    The drowning still cried out for their slaves.

    The young Alexander conquered India.
    Was he alone ?

    Caesar defeated the Gauls.
    Did he not even have a cook with him ?

    Philip of Spain wept when his armada went down.
    Was he the only one to weep ?

    Frederick the 2nd won the 7 Years War.
    Who else won it ?

    Every page a victory.
    Who cooked the feast for the victors ?

    Every 10 years a great man.
    Who paid the bill ?

    So many reports.
    So many questions.”

    So these, were the accomplishments, not of the workers and peasants, but of Stalin? And the mass purges of ordinary people, as well as some of the best of the Russian and European avant-garde were just “mistakes”? The resulting domination over the world socialist movement, setting it back decades, was just “mistake”.

    1. “So these, were the accomplishments, not of the workers and peasants, but of Stalin? And the mass purges of ordinary people, as well as some of the best of the Russian and European avant-garde were just “mistakes”? ”

      I seems fair enough to give credit for Soviet accomplishments to the workers and peasants involved.

      But why stop there?

      You can quote Brecht, but can you apply him?

      How is it possible for an individual to carry out “mass” purges on their own.?

      There is a serious point here. There is now a large body of research on what you refer to as “the mass purges of ordinary people”.

      Its impossible for me to do justice to all the complexities here but one of the findings is that ‘the purges’ involved a great deal of popular participartion. Their democratic’ charcater may go some way to explain the ‘mistakes’.

      1. Two points here. First, one argument is that the revolutionary energy turned inwards, with one of the results being violence, often exhiliaratingly anarchic. Second, one might compare the early days of the cultural revolution in China, when millions of students (many high-school) and workers were mobilised, within an unheard of level of freedom of expression and movement, gigantic demonstrations, mass political meetings, brutal discussions, and recurrent and often anarchic use of violence. That revolutionary violence is often uncontrollable and unpredictable.

      2. Perhaps you are right. Personally, rather than generalise about the nature of revolutionary energy/violence, I prefer at try making a concrete analysis of concrete conditions.

  2. I agree with most of this. There are just a few quibbles.

    “Grain production was falling short by about 20 million tons, needed to feed Russia itself, largely due to old peasant methods of agriculture that were becoming increasingly inefficient.”

    It was not just an issue of the total production of food. Once it had been grown, there was the matter of procuring enough for the urban population.

    The economic paradox of the First World War was that Britain with a very large urban population managed to keep them fed, while other countries, with urban populations that were proportionately far smaller, the towns starved.

    Some of this was due to the supply effect mobilisation also had on agriculture as men and horses were taken away from the land and into the army. However, there were other things going that were linked to the structural differences between economies.

    In Britain capitalism was well developed so production was all about using money to make more money (M – C – M). Meanwhile, in Central and Eastern Europe a significant proportion of agriculture was still at the stage of simple commodity production (C – M – C). That is, peasants produced commodities as a means of obtaining other (different) commodities.

    As states mobilised for war, production was diverted away from civilian goods to military material.

    In Britain and other advanced countries capitalist farmers were happy to accumulate money. In less advanced countries peasant farmers wanted goods they could use. As the supply of these dried up, so peasants became less and less willing to take their own products (essentially, grain) to market. It was more advantageous for them to do less work and eat their production themselves than to produce more and accumulate money they couldn’t spend.

    Collectivisation did several things that made the Soviet economy far more resilient than the old Tsarist economy. These changes were crucial the Soviet Union’s survival in the Second World War.

    1. Tractors were substituted for horses and men. This not only increased productivity it meant that mobilisation had less impact on production.
    2. Scientific techniques could be more easily disseminated and implemented. (your point)
    3. The whole rural economy was more closely integrated with towns thus guaranteeing food security.

    This last point was vital, not just during the war but for the whole process of industrialisation.

    No collectivisation, no five-year plans.
    No five-year plans, no industrialisation.
    No industrialisation, no victory over Nazi Germany.

    1. Thanks again, George. Further, by 1939 the USSR was producing enough grain for export. It is also interesting to note that after 1989, many farmers preferred to stay in the collectives, even though they were all offered private land.

  3. Might be worth reading Lunacharsky’s ‘Revolutionary Silhouettes’ on Trotsky. He was brilliant, intelligent, hard-working … and prickly, unable to work with others, always conscious about how he was going to leave his mark on history.

  4. “When we came here I was stunned how muted the West was about the Russian contribution and how the number of Russians killed in the war was never mentioned. They are particularly silent about Russians during those 9th of May celebrations.”

    9th of May celebrations?

    You do realised that in the UK, the end of the war with Germany – ‘Victory in Europe Day’ or VE Day – is commemorated on the 8th May.

    And thereby hangs a tale, or rather several tales.

    The German goverment signed the unconditional German Instrument of Surrender twice. First, by Jodl, at Eisenhower’s headquarters in Reims at 2:30 am on the morning of May 7. And then again, by Keitel and Stumpff , at Zhukov’s headquarters, in Berlin the following day shortly before midnight,

    Because of the time difference, when the surrender became effective it already the May 9 in Moscow.

    The unconditional surrender of German forces in northern Germany, (including Denmark and the Netherlands) took place on Lüneburg Heath to the Allies, under Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, on May 4, 1945,

    All this might have happened even sooner but for the fact that the initial German delegation was detained by a British front-line unit under the command of an officer (who just happened to be a communist).

  5. “That still does not change the fact that USSR’s war contribution or the number of killed are never mentioned during these celebrations.”

    Of course, you are correct.

    The international nature of blogs like this means we are divided by a common language: English.

    My post contained some nuances that were probably more apparent to my fellow Brits than they were to anyone else.

    Like many Brits, I find it difficult to say anything that doesn’t have lots of subtext. Even when I try to do so, I feel uncomfortable because I know that, at home, people will read in other meanings.

    What I was trying to say was:

    “The Cold War was already underway in May 1945 and the manner and date of the surrender reflected that conflict.

    “Acknowledging the Soviet Union’s role in the defeat of Nazi Germany was a political act…”

    No, I’m sorry. I can’t keep up this ‘plain speaking’. Let me just say that, the ‘powers that be’ had no interest in making gestures that would be to their disadvantage.

    1. While the role of the Soviets is still under-played, if you look at the popular literature available today the position is far, far better than it was in the 1950s and 60s.

      For example the unspeakable Alan Clark’s ‘Barbarossa’ (published 1965) was a great step forward on, say, Churchill’s ‘History of the Second World War’. So much so that in some sections of the British Young Communist League Clark’s book was recommended reading.

      The significance of this is lost unless you realise how awful Clark was. A small indication is given by the way that in his published diaries he quoted with approval a comment on Michael Heseltine, deputy PM:

      “The trouble with Michael is that he had to buy his own furniture” (For those with a social position in the UK it is infer dig to buy your own furniture).

      Another is Clark’s habit of making pro-Hitler remarks.

      As to why there is still reluctance to acknowledge the role of the USSR in WWII I would say the answer is ‘both’.

      One should never underestimate British arrogance. But the ideological aspect is also important.

      The cold war, as you say. is “allegedly over”.
      However, in this time of crisis the blatant non-failure of the Soviet economy during the War is a grain of sand in the spiritual spinach of those who comfort themselves with continual references to the total failure of the Soviet economic model.

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