Over the last few years, I have become convinced by Losurdo’s argument that a socialist state must be a strong state. How else can you transform a society, economics and culture? How else can you develop world-leading affirmative action programs in relation to ethnic minorities, or foster anti-colonial struggles, or establish major infrastructure, or indeed develop five-year plans? Stalin was, of course, the proponent of a strong socialist state, but he had to deal with a curious observation from Engels concerning the ‘withering away of the state’. Losurdo shows how Marx and Engels actually recognised the need for the state to continue, observing that the whole idea of its withering was a petty-bourgeois, anarchist aberration. As for Stalin, he argued that it may be very well in the context of global socialism, but until then a strong socialist state is needed to deal with its many enemies. Or, as van Ree observes, ‘He was realistic enough and not enough of a utopian to embark on a course of self-destruction’.

I am thoroughly enjoying Domenico Losurdo’s book on Stalin, not least because I am thrilled at being able to read the French text with relative ease. Plenty of food for thought, but three items struck me recently.

First, one of the great achievements of the Bolsheviks was to restore the Russian state, albeit in an entirely new way. For more than forty years, from the late nineteenth century, it had been unravelling. By the time of the Russian Revolution, it was well on the way to becoming a failed state. After the revolution, the ‘civil’ war was the time of the greatest danger, but with the victory of the Red Army against an array of international forces and the White Armies, the state began to be recreated. Losurdo points out that the brilliance and energy – and ‘foi furieuse’ – of the Bolsheviks played a huge role. By the 1930s and under Stalin’s leadership, that task had largely been achieved.

Second, Losurdo shoots down the common comparison between the Gulags, or re-education camps in the USSR, and the Nazi ‘concentration camps’. For the former, the purpose was to create potential ‘citizens’ and comrades’ and everything was geared in that direction. By contrast, the fascist concentration camps were fundamentally racist, setting out to destroy the Untermenschen. In that respect, the Nazi camps are of one with the treatment of African slaves in the USA, of indigenous peoples in Canada, and so on.

Third, Losurdo refers to Terry Martin’s Affirmative Action Empire (2001). Martin argues that the Soviet state was the world’s first state based on affirmative action. It fostered national consciousness among its many ethnic minorities, established institutions, encouraged locals to become involved in education,  government and industry, and mandated that local languages would be official. In some cases, the Soviet government had to create written languages where none existed. Immense resources were invested in the publication of books, journals and magazines in local languages, in film, theatre, art, and music. For Martin, ‘nothing comparable had been seen before’. It became standard socialist policy afterwards.