I have finally completed my rather lengthy book on Stalin. Throughout, I have been struck by the absence of any serious engagement with Stalin by the vast majority of the international Left. To be sure, there are one or two exceptions, such as Losurdo, Furr and a recent issue of the journal, Crisis and Critique, but the doctrinal orthodoxy has been set, in a curious collusion between conservatives, liberals and a good number of Marxists (thanks to Khrushchev’s self-serving speech, Hannah Arendt’s woeful efforts, and the anti-communist Robert Conquest). All one need do, then, is perhaps quote a line or two, refer to the Red Terror and forget about Stalin – despite the fact that a huge amount of research continues by those who are certainly not on the Left.
Anyway, pertinent to some of this are a few paragraphs from the introduction to the book:
The present work assumes that Stalin was actually able to think, backed up by exceedingly careful interpretations of his writings and citations. It may be surprising, but he is not often credited with this ability, let alone the ability to think dialectically. Was he not the one who was a novice at theory, mocked by his comrades for his faltering efforts? This assumption is captured best in a fictional vignette: ‘When, at one of the party meetings of those days, Stalin involved himself in a theoretical argument, he was interrupted by a half-amused and half-indignant remark from the old Marxist scholar, Ryazanov: “Stop it, Koba, don’t make a fool of yourself. Everybody knows that theory is not exactly your field”’. By contrast, for all its many flaws, Kotkin’s biography notes Stalin’s ‘vigorous intellect’. I must admit that I have come to agree with Kotkin on this point, overturning many of my preconceptions through patient and careful attention to Stalin’s works.
This is also one of the conclusions of van Ree’s important studies of Stalin’s political thought. While I do not agree completely that Stalin developed a thoroughly tight-fitting and comprehensive doctrine to which he adhered, I do agree that Stalin gave much thought to the problems thrown up by the ever-changing situation and that he did so by immersing himself in the Marxist classics. Significant here is van Ree’s consideration of the role of Stalin’s thought in popular (mis)conceptions, which I interpret as follows. Stalin has variously been charged with vulgar Marxist, dogmatism, mystification, ignoring reality and the peddling of illusions. These charges turn on whether Stalin was out of touch or in touch with reality. If the former, then his dogmatism was one with his illusions, but this suggestion struggles to make any sense of the events as they unfolded in the Soviet Union, in all their stunning achievements, disruptions and failures. It also fails to understand the remarkable consistency in Stalin’s thought and that of the other communists who worked with him. If the latter, then he becomes a hypocrite, cynic or sophist, assuming a deliberate effort to conceal reality, as saying one thing – in very Marxist terms – but doing the opposite, or a cynical effort to secure ever more dictatorial power, or spinning words to justify yet another deviation. The problem here is that Stalin clearly believed what he thought and acted upon such positions. Ultimately, all of these charges carry with them the assumption that one has no need to consider his actual texts and the thoughts developed therein. My study indicates that this a serious mistake.
Indeed, I have come to the position that Stalin must be studied carefully as part of the Marxist tradition. The various responses I have discussed – ranging from dismissals of his intellectual ability to the charge of sophistry – function as efforts to excise Stalin from this tradition. To this should be added a narrative of betrayal, or even a Fall from the truth of Marxism. This narrative takes many forms, with some attributing the betrayal to Engels, Lenin or Stalin (apart from efforts to condemn Marxism by connecting them all to Marx). I am interested here in the charge that Stalin himself betrayed Marxism. This move is often made to distinguish him from Lenin, so that one may claim Lenin, dismiss Stalin, and then pick up another as the true heir of Lenin – whether Trotsky, Mao, Ho Chi Minh, or Castro. I find this a curious move indeed, for it erases a major figure in that tradition, who – despite his missteps from time to time – was crucial in fostering anti-colonial struggles and socialist revolutions elsewhere in the world, especially in China. No matter what one’s assessment of Stalin may be, it is an act of intellectual laziness to deny him a place in the tradition. So I follow van Ree in assuming that Stalin was very much part of the Marxist tradition. He notes that Stalin’s library was overwhelmingly Marxist and he made extensive notes in the works of Marx, Engels and Lenin. Even more, all of the key ideas developed by Lenin and Stalin can be found in earlier moments of the Marxist tradition. After all, a political tradition like Marxism is constantly developing, revising positions and developing new ones in light of changing circumstances.
I should add that for the ‘sin’ of taking Stalin seriously as a thinker in the Marxist tradition, I have been accused from time to time of being a ‘Stalinist’ (the strange term coined by Trotsky and company). I am no such thing. Instead, I am not comfortable with assumed orthodoxies, albeit with a twist. As Losurdo pointed out to me last year, we are not the heretics or the revisionists, we are actually of the mainstream. We simply need to be patient.
So in the conclusion to the book, I draw on Losurdo’s brilliant analysis of how Stalin became a ‘black legend’ (with the obligatory reductio ad Hitlerum). In response, I draw on the Chinese Marxist approach to Stalin:
As with Mao, one needs to appreciate the significant achievements made and criticise the mistakes. It is as simple as that, but it has far-reaching consequences. Like Mao, Stalin and the Bolsheviks made momentous breakthroughs and achievements, but they also made egregious mistakes of which they were only sometimes conscious. If I may quote the current Chairman of the People’s Republic, Xi Jinping: ‘Revolutionary leaders are not gods, but human beings. We cannot worship them like gods or refuse to allow people to point out and correct their errors just because they are great; neither can we totally repudiate them and erase their historical feats just because they made mistakes’.
Which is another way of saying that the Stalin book is both the end of 15 year project and it provides the seeds of a very new project in a Chinese situation. It is called ‘Socialism in Power’ and seeks to analyse the theoretical implications of the realities of a communist party in power and its efforts to construct socialism. The project includes some leading Chinese researchers and international scholars open to examining the question.