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The Complex and Contradictory Course of the Stalin Era


Domenico Losurdo

 From a New Attempt at “Soviet Democracy” to “Saint Bartholomew's Night”

In any case, It’s important to stress―as one of the authors of the Black Book of Communism ironically recognizes―the need for the “contextualization of Bolshevik political violence at first, and Stalin’s violence later on, within the ‘long duration’ of Russian history”: it’s important not to lose sight of “Stalinism’s ‘matrix’ which was the First World War, the revolutions of 1917, and the civil wars as a whole."385 And therefore, emerging when no one could yet predict Stalin’s rise to power, and even before the Bolshevik Revolution, “Stalinism” isn’t the result of an ideology or an individual’s thirst for power, but more precisely the result of the permanent state of emergency which consumes Russia in 1914. As we’ve seen, from the start of the nineteenth century a number of very different personalities didn’t miss the troubling signs of a gathering storm over the country that sits between Europe and Asia; the storm manifests itself in all its violence with the outbreak of the First World War. One must start from here, and from the incredibly long duration of the Second Time of Troubles. It’s not by chance that we’re dealing with a phenomenon that unfolds in a totally non- linear manner: we see it ease in moments of relative normalization and we see it manifest in all its severity when the state of emergency reaches its zenith.

Let’s start with a preliminary question: at what point could we refer to Soviet Russia as a personal and absolute dictatorship? Respectable historians appear to be in agreement on an essential point: “At the start of the 1930s Stalin was not yet an autocrat. He was not free from criticism, dissension, and authentic opposition within the communist party." The absolute power of a leader shielded by a cult of personality had not yet emerged: the Leninist tradition of the “dictatorship of the party” and oligarchic power persisted.386 The historians cited here use the two terms interchangeably; by all measures the second poorly describes a regime that encourages an incredibly strong level of social mobility for the subaltern classes and that opens political and cultural life to social strata and ethnic groups that were totally marginalized up until then. It seems evident that, at least starting from 1937, and starting with the outbreak of the Great Terror, the dictatorship of the party gives way to autocracy.

Should we then identify two phases within “Stalinism”? Despite questioning the traditionally “monolithic” interpretation, this periodization doesn’t represent a genuine step forward in the comprehension of those years. In any case, the transition from the first phase to the second, and the concrete configuration of both, require explanation.

To understand the problem, let’s see what happened in the middle of the 1920s, at a time in which, having survived the severe crisis represented by foreign intervention and civil war, NEP has achieved significant results: not only is there no autocracy, but despite the communist party’s continued dictatorship, the management of power tends to become more “liberal." Bukharin appears to go as far as encouraging a rule of law, of sorts. “The peasantry should have before them Soviet order, Soviet rights, Soviet legality and not arbitrary Soviet authority moderated by a ‘complaints office’ whose location is unknown." “Solid legal norms” are required, obligatory for communists as well. The state must now commit itself to “peaceful organizing work” and the party, in its relations with the masses, must “apply persuasion and only persuasion." Terror no longer makes sense: “it now belongs to the past."387 In its place, the task is making space for the “initiative of the masses”; in this context, it’s necessary to look positively on the flourishing of “popular associations” and “voluntary organizations."388

Before us are not merely personal opinions. These are the years of the “duumvirate."389 Bukharin manages power alongside Stalin, who in 1925 constantly seeks the “liquidation of the remnants of war communism in the countryside” and condemns the “deviation” which denounces an imaginary “restoration of capitalism” and “risks inciting the class struggle in rural areas” and “civil war in our country”;390 they must realize that “we are in the phase of economic development."391

The shift in emphasis from the class struggle to economic development carries important consequences for the political sphere as well: the primary responsibility for communist students is to “become masters of science."392 Only this way can they aspire to carry out a leadership role: “competence” matters; “solid, practical management is now required." And therefore: “to truly lead it’s necessary to understand your own work, it’s necessary to study it conscientiously, patiently, and with perseverance."393 The centrality of economic development, and therefore of competence, makes the party monopoly less rigid: “it’s critical that a communist act as an equal to those outside the party”, especially because “the control of party members” over the work of those “outside the party” could produce very positive results.394

Overall, a radical political change is unavoidable according to Stalin: “Today it’s no longer possible to lead through military methods”; “it’s not maximum pressure that’s needed now but maximum flexibility, both in policy and in organization, maximum flexibility in both policy direction as in organizational management”; what’s needed is dedication in receptively capturing “the aspirations and needs of the workers and peasants." And with respect to the peasants, who often prove to be more backward than the workers, the task of communists and cadres is “to learn how to convince them, sparing neither time nor effort for this purpose."395

It’s not just a matter of embracing a more sophisticated political pedagogy. What’s necessary is doing away with merely formal elections conducted from above, and bad practices which included “lack of rigor, abuse of power, and arbitrary behavior by administrators." A radical shift is required: “the old electoral practices were a remnant of war communism which should be liquidated as a harmful practice, rotten from top to bottom."396 Now it’s a matter of “reactivating the soviets, transforming the soviets into true elected bodies, and establishing in rural areas the principles of soviet democracy."397

Even before October, the soviets had started to transform into “bureaucratic structures”, with an observable decrease in “the frequency and consistency of the assemblies”;398 but now, returned to their original function, the soviets are called upon to guarantee “the participation of the workers in the daily work of state administration."399 How does this take place?

It takes place through organisations based on mass initiative, all kinds of commissions and committees, conferences and delegate meetings that spring up around the Soviets; economic bodies, factory committees, cultural institutions, party organisations, youth league organisations, all kinds of co-operative associations, and so on and so forth. Our comrades sometimes fail to see that around the low units of our Party, Soviet, cultural, trade-union, educational, Y.C.L. and army organisations, around the departments for work among women and all other kinds of organisations, there are whole teeming ant-hills―organisations, commissions and conferences which have sprung up of their own accord and embrace millions of non-Party workers and peasants―ant-hills which, by their daily, inconspicuous, painstaking, quiet work, provide the basis and the life of the Soviets, the source of strength of the Soviet state.400

For all these reasons, it’s wrong to “identify the party with the state." Moreover, to do so “is a distortion of Lenin’s thinking." Further, once the position of the new state is consolidated, both internally and internationally, it’s necessary “to extend the Constitution to the entire population, including the bourgeoisie."401

At this moment, taking up some of the formulations used by Marx to celebrate the Paris Commune, Stalin takes an interest in the idea of the reduction and even the withering away of the state apparatus. The revitalization of the Soviets and political participation could be a step in that direction. It’s a matter of “transforming our state apparatus, linking it to the popular masses, and making it sound and honest, simple and inexpensive”;402 on top of this, associations that emerge from civil society should be encouraged: they “unite the soviets with the ‘rank and file’, they merge the state apparatus with the vast masses and, step by step, destroy everything that serves as a barrier between the state apparatus and the people.”403 In conclusion: “The dictatorship of the proletariat is not an end in itself. The dictatorship is a means, a way of achieving socialism. But what is socialism? Socialism is the transition from a society with the dictatorship of the proletariat to a stateless society."404 What’s on the agenda is certainly not the end of the “dictatorship of the proletariat” and the party, but rather their evident moderation.

This political openness shared by Bukharin and Stalin, but classified by the followers of Zinoviev as “Bolshevism of the middle peasantry”,405 was followed by the crisis which leads to the liquidation of NEP, the coerced collectivization of agriculture and industrialization in forced stages, with the subsequent expansion of the “univers concentrationnaire” (concentrationary universe). What determines the change isn’t, as is often claimed, the ideological zealotry of the leadership group; that is, the obsession with eliminating the market and all forms of private property. At the same time,  one can’t underestimate the pressure from below; in not unimportant sectors of society, nostalgia  for the egalitarianism from before the introduction of NEP remains strong. Moreover, another factor comes into play.

As if wanting to respond to the sort of analysis that’s widespread today, on November 19th, 1928, Stalin states that the Soviet Union is led by “sober and calm people”, concerned with the problem  of how to defend the “independence” of a country significantly more backward compared to the hostile powers that encircle it.406 Thus, they are driven by their concern over the international situation, an international situation seen as increasingly hostile. At the end of November 1925, the treaty of Locarno is signed. Drawing France and Germany closer together, it mended relations between the Western powers that had fought each other during the First World  War, thus formalizing the USSR’s isolation: it’s not hard to find voices seeking “a European crusade against communism."407 And in Moscow, top-level figures like Zinoviev, Radek, and Kamenev dramatically stress the rising risk of an invasion.408
Months later, the coup d’état in Poland marks Pilsudski's rise to power, a declared enemy of the Soviet Union. In his office the painting of Napoleon Crossing the Alps is prominently displayed, but Pilsudski admires him for his invasion of Russia. That last endeavour had Polish participation; the new strong man in Warsaw recalls this with pride, and hopes to take Ukraine from the USSR in order to make it a subaltern and loyal ally.409 On August 24th, 1926, Pilsudski rejected the proposal made by Moscow for a non-aggression treaty, and later the Soviet minister of foreign affairs denounces Polish plans aimed at acquiring a protectorate in the Baltics." The following year, the international situation became even more ominous: Great Britain cuts off commercial and diplomatic relations with the USSR and marshal Ferdinand Foch encouraged France to do the same; in Beijing, the USSR’s embassy suffers an attack by the troops of Chiang Kai-shek, egged on from London perhaps (at least according to Moscow), while in Warsaw the Soviet ambassador is assassinated by a white Russian emigre; finally, in Leningrad there’s an explosion at the headquarters of the communist party.

At this point, it’s Tukhachevsky, the chief of staff of the armed forces, who sounds the alarm and demands a rapid modernization of the military. NEP no longer seems capable of solving the problem: yes, the economy shows signs of recovery and in 1926-1927 it returns to pre-war levels, but, with respect to industrial production and technology, the distance between the USSR and the most advanced capitalist countries remains the same. Incisive or even drastic measures are unavoidable.410 And the military presses for similar measures in agriculture, with the aim of guaranteeing a regular food supply for the frontline. As you can see, the policy shift in 1929 isn’t the result of Stalin’s impulsiveness, who in fact must, if not contain, at least channel the pressure  coming from the military: in rejecting the unrealistic objectives demanded mainly by Tukhachevsky, Stalin warns against “red militarism” which, in concentrating exclusively on the arms industry, would run the risk of jeopardizing economic development, and ultimately jeopardizing military modernization all together.411 Nor is the policy shift the result of a rigid ideology: aside from the power of the communist party and the prevailing social relations within the USSR, what’s at stake is the existence of the nation: this is the opinion of a large part of the Soviet leadership group, beginning with Stalin, of course.

The state of alarm appears all the more justified by the ominous international horizon, both in the diplomatic sphere and in the economic sphere (1929 is the year of the Great Depression), and on top of this there’s the “grain crisis” within Russia (the sudden fall in the quantity of grain put on the market by the peasantry): “lines to acquire food become widespread in the cities”, provoking a deterioration of the crisis. It was a situation that “could only work against Bukharin’s policy aims”―Bukharin’s biographer correctly observes.412 At this point the duumvirate's fate is sealed. The rupture isn’t just explained by the moral scruples of the defeated member of the duumvirate, who astutely foresees the “Saint Bartholomew’s night” caused by the forced collectivization of agriculture. What causes the internal split is chiefly another factor. Bukharin is also worried about the risk of war, but he doesn’t believe that a solution can be found just within the national context: “Socialism’s definitive victory in our country isn’t possible without the help of other countries and the world revolution."413 The Bolshevik leader―who had previously condemned the Brest-Litovsk treaty as a cowardly and nationalistic desertion from the international struggle of the proletariat―remains loyal to that vision of internationalism:
If we exaggerate our possibilities, there then could arise a tendency ... ‘to spit’ on the international revolution; such a tendency could give rise to its own special ideology, a peculiar ‘national Bolshevism’ or something else in this spirit. From here it is a few small steps to a number of even more harmful ideas.414
Stalin, however, more realistically works off the premise that the capitalist world has stabilized: the defense of the USSR is primarily a national task. It’s not just a matter of advancing the country’s industrialization through forced stages. As the “grain crisis” showed, the flow of food from the countryside and to the cities and the army is by no means guaranteed. Especially sensitive to this problem was someone like Stalin who, beginning with his rich experience from the civil war, had often stressed the key importance (in a future war) of stability in the rear and of the food supplies coming from the countryside. Here are the conclusions found in a letter to Lenin and  in an interview with Pravda, from summer and autumn of 1918: “the question of food supplies is naturally tied to the military question." In other words: “an army can’t sustain itself for very long without a stable rear. For the front to remain stable, it’s crucial that the army regularly receive supplies, military provisions and food from the rear."415 In the lead-up to Hitler’s invasion, Stalin gives great attention to agriculture, considering it a central element of national defense.416 One can then understand why, at the end of the 1920s, collectivization of agriculture seemed to be the mandatory route in order to significantly accelerate the country’s industrialization and to secure the stable supply of provisions needed by the cities and the army, all in preparation for war. In effect:

Putting aside the human costs, the economic results of the first five-year plan were stunning. Increasing industrial production by 250%, Soviet Russia took colossal steps in becoming a major industrial power [...]. Obviously, the “great leap forward” in Soviet Russia’s industrial economy brought with it a “great leap forward” for the arms industry, with military spending increasing by a factor of five between 1929 and 1940.417 

More modest are the results achieved in agriculture; nevertheless, centralization and the decline of subsistence farming create more favorable conditions for a large army’s regular provision.

From “Socialist Democracy” to the Great Terror

Having survived the “Saint Bartholomew’s night” that was the forced collectivization of agriculture, with the terrible social and human costs that come with it, the political relaxation that we previously encountered appears to reemerge. After the victory over the kulaks―Kaganovich observes in September of 1934―it’s necessary to “move completely toward legality” and “educate our people with socialist legal consciousness”; yes, without the massive education of “160 million people with the spirit and consciousness of the law” it won’t be possible to achieve “the consolidation of our legal system."418 All of this is even more necessary because―as Stalin emphasizes―in the USSR “there are no longer antagonistic classes."419 Therefore, there’s no reason to delay the introduction  of “universal suffrage, direct and equal, by secret ballot”,420 and “unrestricted universal suffrage."421 Therefore, the constitutional amendments which purpose “taking away electoral rights from the clergy, ex-White Guards, all the ‘exes’, as well as individuals who don’t carry out publicly useful work”, are rejected. Nor does it make sense wanting to give these groups “only the right vote, but not the right to be elected”; and it also makes sense to reject the proposal “prohibiting the holding of religious ceremonies." Now it’s possible to advance toward “socialist democracy."422

It’s not just a matter of propaganda, which certainly plays an important role. Before us is a political vision that provokes a fierce polemic by Trotsky, who identifies in it “Stalin’s liberalism”, the abandonment of “the council system” and the return of “bourgeois democracy”, in which class differences are eliminated and the subject is the “citizen” in the abstract. This policy turn is easily understood: “the primary concern of the Soviet aristocracy is ridding itself of the  soviets  of workers and soldiers of the Red Army."423

The antithesis between the two perspectives is clear. Having avoided the danger posed to the country’s independence by a backwards countryside, dominated by Kulaks capable of blocking the flow of supplies to the city and the army, and with the dictatorship of the communist party secured, Stalin has no interest in further exacerbating the political and social conflict. It’s the drive to rapidly industrialize which compels him to seek the promotion of “non-party” elements to management posts in the factory and within society. It’s unacceptable to take a closed attitude toward them: “there’s nothing more stupid or reactionary”; “our policy doesn’t consist, in any way, of  transforming our party into a closed caste”; what’s needed is to make every effort to win over specialists, engineers, and technicians from the “old school” to the cause of the country’s industrial and technological development.424

On the other hand, it’s not possible to promote industrial and technological development without also providing material incentives for the training of workers and specialized technicians; and here arises the polemic against “‘leftist’ leveling of salaries." Only by moving away from a crude, retributive leveling is it possible to introduce a more efficient “organization of work” and put an end to fluctuations in the workforce, especially among the most qualified who move from factory to factory in search of a comparatively better salary. Aside from egalitarianism and the low morale among the most qualified and productive workers, the policy of incentives should also put an end to the lack of collective responsibility and put in its place the principle of “personal responsibility."425

It’s precisely at this moment when conditions mature for the outbreak of the third civil war, the one that will decimate the very ranks of the Bolsheviks. Trotsky’s position is very tough on what he defines as “neo-NEP." Yes, in the CPSU a “deviation to the right” is happening, increasingly apparent, with the favoring of the “higher strata of the people” and the counterattack by kulaks: the bureaucracy “is ready to make economic concessions to the peasantry, to their interests and their petty-bourgeois tendencies." More generally: also as a consequence of the “turn toward the market”, “monetary calculus” and the resulting increased cost of living, far from advancing toward socialism and the overcoming of inequality and class divisions, soviet society is increasingly characterized by “new processes of class stratification."426 This internal retreat would be met, with respect to international politics, by the renouncing of all revolutionary and internationalist ambitions by the “conservative and petty-nationalist bureaucracy of the Soviet Union."427 Now “the only guiding principle is the status quo!”, as confirmed by “the entry of the Soviet Union into the League of Nations."428

Obviously, neither Stalin or Trotsky are oblivious to the deteriorating international situation, but their response to this problem is different and opposing. For Stalin, it’s a matter of concentrating on the industrial and technological development of Russia, mending as much as possible the divisions caused by the October Revolution and by collectivization in the countryside, and presenting the party as the guiding force for the nation as a whole. The stability that has been achieved internally could allow for, at the same time, the promotion of a policy of international alliances capable of guaranteeing the USSR’s security. In Trotsky’s opinion, however, as momentous as Soviet Russia’s industrialization may be, it can only defeat an assault by the more advanced imperialist countries if it has the support of the proletariat within the aggressor nations.429 Therefore, the accommodation with the bourgeoisie, both internally and internationally, not only constitutes a betrayal, but it prevents the homeland of the October Revolution from winning over the revolutionary  international proletariat, the only force that can save it. The clash between these two perspectives is inevitable. Kirov is assassinated on December 1st, 1934; the French-Soviet pact is signed on May 2nd, 1935: between these two dates the above mentioned intervention by Trotsky takes place (“Where is the Stalinist bureaucracy taking the USSR?”), which is published on January 30th, 1935, and it’s a heavy indictment against the internal and international “neo-NEP."

From “Socialism without the Dictatorship of the Proletariat” to the Cold War Clamp Down

The Great Terror, and the terrible purge that comes with it, was followed by the Great Patriotic War. After the defeat of the Third Reich, Stalin, who “predicts a great future for the great” anti-fascist “alliance” and who tries to avoid the outbreak of the Cold War,430 repeatedly declares, including in confidential meetings with communist leaders from eastern Europe, that’s it’s not a question of introducing the Soviet political model: “it’s possible that if we didn’t have the war in the Soviet Union, the dictatorship of the proletariat would have taken on a different character." The situation created in Eastern Europe after 1945 is clearly more favorable: “In Poland the dictatorship of the proletariat doesn’t exist and you don’t need it”; “should Poland move toward the establishment of the dictatorship of the proletariat? No, it’s not obligated to do so, it’s not necessary." And to the

Bulgarian communist leaders: it is possible “to achieve socialism in a new way, without the dictatorship of the proletariat”; “the situation has radically changed with respect to our revolution, what’s needed is to apply different methods and forms [...]. You shouldn’t fear accusations of opportunism. This isn’t opportunism, but the application of Marxism to the current situation." And to Tito: “in our time socialism is possible even under the English monarchy. The revolution is no longer necessary everywhere [...]. Yes, socialism is even possible under an English king." For  his  part, the historian who recorded these declarations adds: “As these observations show, Stalin was actively rethinking the universal validity of the Soviet model of revolution and socialism."431 Maybe one can go further and say that he’s also reconsidering the general relationship between socialism and democracy, with even the Soviet Union in mind: to formulate the hypothesis of a socialism under an English king means to put up for discussion, in some form, if not the monopolistic concentration of power in the hands of the communist party, then at least the terrorist dictatorship and autocracy. The policy implemented in the Soviet occupation zone of Germany is instructive: “The Russians didn’t just promote socialist theater, ballet, opera, and cinema; they also promoted the bourgeois arts”, and this is done according to the program formulated in Moscow, “on the basis that the Soviet system wasn’t predestined for Germany, which should, on the contrary, be reorganized on the basis of broad, anti-fascist and democratic principles." Thus, “during the first three years after the war, there was no real cultural division in the capital, and the Soviet zone continued to play a vanguard role in the cultural field."432

The start of the Cold War suddenly interrupts that experience and that reflection: the central problem now is the creation of a security cordon around a country brutalized by the Nazi invasion and occupation, with the aim of avoiding a repeat of the tragedies of the past. While “the question of the Gulag’s at least partial dismantlement is raised in the USSR even before Stalin’s passing”,433 a complete thaw becomes impossible. After Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Soviet Union must concentrate on a new “forced march” to catch up with the new “Western technological revolution." It has liberated itself from “German occupation”, but it can’t “allow itself to rest”: a new terrible threat has emerged.434 Especially because a few years later, on November 1st, 1952, the explosion of the first hydrogen bomb occurs, a thousand times more powerful than those dropped on the two Japanese cities:
When the United States government announced the results of the test, in other countries there were reactions of shock and terror. It’s obvious that a bomb of such extraordinary power couldn’t be used against military objectives. If it wasn’t a weapon of war, it could only be a weapon of genocide and political blackmail [...]. Stalin received a report on the American test in the middle of November, and it served only to confirm his conviction that the United States was seriously preparing itself for a war against the Soviet Union.435
Not an unfounded concern if we consider January of 1952. To reverse the stalemate in military operations in Korea, Truman entertains a radical idea which he records in his diary: they could deliver an ultimatum to the USSR and the People’s Republic of China, clarifying in advance that failure to comply “means that Moscow, Saint Petersburg, Mukden, Vladivostok, Peking, Shanghai, Port Arthur, Dairen, Odessa, Stalingrad, and all the industrial centers of China and the Soviet Union would be eliminated."436

In the three decades of Soviet history led by Stalin, the principal aspect is not the transition from dictatorship of the party to autocracy, but more precisely the repeated attempts to transition from the state of emergency to a state of relative normality, attempts which fail for reasons both internal (abstract utopianism and millenarianism that prevent the recognition of what has been achieved) and international (the permanent threat that looms over the country that emerged out of the October Revolution), or better yet the combination of them. If millenarianism is, in part, an expression of tendencies intrinsic to Marxism, it’s also a reaction to the horror of the First World War, which even in circles and personalities distant to Marxism gives rise to the aspiration for a totally new world, unrelated to a reality capable of producing or reproducing such horrors. With the outbreak of the third civil war (within the ranks of the Bolsheviks) and with the approach of the Second World War (breaking out in Asia before Europe), this series of failures finally results in the arrival of autocracy, exercised by a leader who’s the object of a genuine cult of personality.

Bureaucracy or “Zealous Faith”?

What can we make of the leadership group that achieved victory during the third civil war and that sought to put an end to the Second Time of Troubles at the exact moment when new and colossal storms formed on the horizon? We saw that while Khrushchev, through tortured allusions, makes Kirov the victim of a plot organized by the Kremlin, Trotsky classifies him as an accomplice to the tyrant and a top flight defender of the hated usurper and parasitical bureaucracy―which is to be swept away once and for all by the next revolution. But is the man assassinated by Nikolaev really a bureaucrat? Let’s return to the Russian historian cited earlier, a critic of the myth of the assassination inspired by Stalin, to see how they describe the victim. So who was Kirov? He was a loyal leader, humble and devoted to the cause. And that’s not all: what characterized him was his attention to the most minor of problems in the daily lives of his colleagues, a great modesty, “tolerant of different opinions, and respectful toward cultures and traditions of other peoples."437
This flattering judgement ends up putting Kirov’s entire social group under a favorable light, and that ultimately puts Stalin in a favorable light, as the former was his intimate and trusted collaborator. This is absolutely not a bureaucratic elite without ideals, only interested in their  careers:
Like many leaders of that era, Kirov genuinely believed in a bright future, for which he worked between eighteen and twenty hours a day: a convinced communist, like when he sang Stalin’s praises for strengthening the party and the Soviet Union, and for the country’s power and development. This zealous faith was perhaps the tragedy of an entire generation.438
In any case, it’s the leadership group as a whole that demonstrates its work dedication and self- sacrifice. We previously learned of “the enormous workload” that the Soviet leader managed to take on:
[At least during the years of the war] Stalin worked fourteen or fifteen hours a day in the Kremlin or at the dacha [...]. In autumn of 1946, Stalin went to the south to enjoy a vacation for the first time since 1937 [...]. A few months before his death, and ignoring urgent recommendations from doctors, Stalin rejected the possibility of taking a break in the autumn or winter of 1952, despite the enormous amount of time and effort dedicated to organizing the XIX party congress in October.439
A similar assessment can be made of one of Stalin’s close collaborators, Lazar M. Kaganovich, who displays “frenzied commitment” in overseeing the construction of the Moscow subway: “he went right down into the tunnels, including at night, to check on the conditions of the workers and to get an idea of the situation."440 To conclude, before us is a leadership group which demonstrates “practically superhuman dedication”,441 especially during the war years.

It’s a “zealous faith” that drives them; that faith isn’t limited to that inner circle, nor is it limited to members of the communist party. “Average men and women” also demonstrated their “missionary zeal”; as a whole, “it was a period of genuine enthusiasm, of feverish effort and voluntary sacrifice."442 You can easily understand this spiritual climate if you have in mind that the country was blowing through stages of industrial development and offering great possibilities of  upward  mobility for much of the population, precisely at a time when the capitalist world was in the middle of a devastating crisis. Let’s turn to another historian who makes use of an interesting memoir in his analysis:
The years of 1928-1931 were a period of enormous upward mobility for the working class. The promoters of socialist emulation and Stakhanovites not only substituted ‘unfit’ cadre, but occupied en masse the available posts in the administrative apparatus and in the learning institutions undergoing massive expansion. They were not passively promoted, but were active protagonists in their promotion (samovy dvizhentsy). They had “a clear and defined objective for the present and the future” and “sought to acquire the greatest amount of knowledge and practical experience, in order to be as useful as possible to the new society."
The Stakhanovite movement and socialist emulation played an important role in the process of industrialization: they helped the political leadership accelerate the speed of that process; promoting industrial modernization; reorganizing factory management under a unified model; and selecting young, ambitious, competent, and politically trustworthy workers for promotion. The emergence of these workers as a political force had an enthusiastic effect over party, industrial and union leaders.443

An authoritative account confirms and deepens the image sketched out above. In 1932, in Riga, capital of Latvia, a young American diplomat, destined later to become famous as the advocate for soviet containment, namely George Kennan, sends a cable to Washington which contains a very interesting analysis. First of all, he highlights that “in the Soviet Union life continues being administered in the interest of a doctrine”, that is, in the interest of communism. It’s a worldview that can count on a wide consensus; the “industrial proletariat” enjoys high social recognition, so much so that according to him it largely compensates for “material disadvantages” related to the accelerated program of economic development. The youth, or a “certain part of the youth”, appear “extremely enthusiastic and happy, as can only occur among human beings completely dedicated to tasks that have no relation to their personal lives”, that’s to say people completely immersed in the inspiring project of building a new society. In this sense, one can speak of “an unlimited self- confidence, and the happiness and mental health of the Russian youth." But then comes a warning that, in light of the subsequent historical experience, may be considered prescient: “From the most morally united country in the world, Russia can overnight become the worst moral chaos."444 Such a state of high moral tension could hardly withstand the passing of time, and the inevitable difficulties and failures in the project of building a new society; thus the situation could easily turn against  them. But it remains true that in 1932, before Kirov’s assassination, Soviet Russia appears, in the eyes of the future advocate for containment, as “the most morally united country in the world."

Of course, here Kennan is more familiar with the reality in the cities (where, despite the contradictions, the changes had, in fact, aroused the enthusiasm of a large part of the youth, intellectuals, and industrial workers)445 than he is with the reality in the countryside. There the forced collectivization of agriculture had provoked, according to the far-sighted warning by Bukharin, “a ‘Saint Bartholomew’s night’ for the rich peasantry” and, more generally, for “an enormous number of peasants” often belonging to national minorities. A civil war had broken out, and it had been carried out in such a ruthless and terrible way on both sides that it drives a Soviet military officer to suicide, disturbed by an inspection during which he had repeatedly exclaimed that it wasn’t communism but “horror."446 It was probably that “horror” that provoked Bukharin’s moral crisis, outraged by the large scale Saint Bartholomew’s night, against which he had warned in vain, and horrified by the colossal experiment in social engineering that continued on without “mercy”, without distinguishing “between a person and a scrap of wood."447 And after the conclusion of collectivization, it’s not convincing to speak of the countryside as “morally united”, as if  the memory of the civil war that fractured and bloodied it had totally disappeared.

However, despite these necessary clarifications, Kennan’s insistence on the enthusiasm and the commitment to “doctrine” reminds us of the earlier references to “zealous faith” and “missionary zeal." Even with the outbreak of the Great Terror in 1937 the situation doesn’t change substantially, at least according to similar analysis by an American and a Russian historian. The first, while insisting on the manipulation of public opinion from above,  nonetheless observes that Stalin in 1935  enjoyed great popularity: an eventual attempt to overthrow him would have faced wide resistance.448 With regard to the following year, the second historian (and militant anti-Stalinist) indicates that “the party and the soviet people remain confident in Stalin”; moreover, as a consequence of the fact that “urban and rural standards of living have improved considerably”, “a certain measure of popular enthusiasm” became widespread.449

It’s not just rising living standards motivating such “enthusiasm." There’s more: the “genuine development” of nations, nations until that moment marginalized; the conquest on the part of women of “legal equality with men, along with an improvement in their social status”; the emergence of a “solid social welfare system” which includes “pensions, medical assistance, protections for pregnant women, family pensions”; “the significant development of education and the intellectual sphere as a whole”, with the expansion of “the network of libraries and reading rooms” and the increasing “love for the arts and poetry”; it’s the chaotic and exhilarating arrival of modernity (urbanization, nuclear family, social mobility).450 It has to do with processes that characterize the entire history of Soviet Russia, but that take off precisely during the Stalin years.

The popular masses traditionally condemned to illiteracy burst into the schools and universities; they then become “a whole new generation of skilled workers, technicians, and expertly trained administrators”, quickly called upon to carry out a leadership role. “New cities are founded and old cities are rebuilt”; the opening of new and colossal industrial complexes goes hand in hand with the “upward mobility of skilled and ambitious citizens of working class or peasant origin."451 Ultimately, it’s referred to as “a mixture of brutal coercion, remarkable heroism, disastrous madness, and spectacular achievements."452
Maybe it’s not even these results, and the consequent economic improvements, that constitute the principal aspect of the radical social transformation of the workplace during the transition from the old regime to the new regime.
[In Tsarist Russia] workers demanded more respectful treatment by their employers. They wanted them to call them by the polite “you” (vyi) instead of the familiar one (tyi), which they associated with the old serf regime. They wanted to be treated as “citizens." It was often this issue of respectful treatment, rather than the bread-and-butter question of wages, which fueled workers’ strikes and demonstrations.453
Long having sought after it in vain, the serfs obtained their recognition (in the Hegelian sense of the term) with the arrival of soviet power. And this is true not just for the workers, but for national minorities as well, as we shall see. It is this combination of “spectacular achievements” in economic development and the toppling of the old regime’s hierarchies (confirmed by the possibility of unprecedented social mobility) which encourages a sense of exaltation among the people: on top of the recognition achieved by workers is the recognition achieved by the Soviet people as a whole, a Soviet people now at the point of catching up with the most developed countries, ridding themselves of the traditional image of backwardness. This explains the feeling of exhilaration in participating in the construction of a new society and a new civilization, which advances despite the mistakes, sacrifices, and terror.

Moreover, it’s interesting to reread the principal accusation made against the soviet bureaucracy’s leadership, formulated by Trotsky before the Great Terror. It’s as if suddenly the indictment gives way to acknowledgements that are so important that they turn the indictment on its head:
Gigantic achievements in industry, enormously promising beginnings in agriculture, an extraordinary growth of the old industrial cities and the building of new ones, a rapid increase in the numbers of workers, a rise in cultural level and cultural demands―such are the indubitable results of the October revolution, in which the prophets of the old world tried to see the grave of human civilization. With the bourgeois economists we have no longer anything to quarrel over. Socialism has demonstrated its right to victory, not on the pages of Das Kapital, but in an industrial arena comprising a sixth part of the earth’s surface [...]. thanks solely to a proletarian revolution a backward country has achieved in less than twenty years successes unexampled in history.”454
With economic development, not only new social strata but entire nations gain access to culture:
“In the schools of the Union, lessons are taught at present in no less than eighty languages. For a majority of them, it was necessary to compose new alphabets, or to replace the extremely aristocratic Asiatic alphabets with the more democratic Latin. Newspapers are published in the same number of languages ―papers which for the first time acquaint the peasants and nomadic shepherds with the elementary ideas of human culture. Within the far-flung boundaries of the tsar's empire, a native industry is arising. The old semi-clan culture is being destroyed by the tractor. Together with literacy, scientific agriculture and medicine are coming into existence. It would be difficult to overestimate the significance of this work of raising up new human strata.”455
In regards to the relationship with “backwards nationalities”, the hated bureaucracy in spite of everything carries out “a progressive work”; it is “laying down a bridge for them to the elementary benefits of bourgeois and even pre-bourgeois culture."456 Based on this image, it remains a mystery how Trotsky could have thought the anti-bureaucratic revolution was just around the corner. But this is not of interest to us now. The acknowledgements, let slip by the opposition leader, are an indication of the prestige and consensus which the Soviet leadership still enjoyed. The spread of a “new Soviet patriotism” can’t be explained in any other way, It’s a sentiment that’s “certainly very deep, sincere, and dynamic."457

1937 and 1938 are the biennium of the Great Terror. Not even in “its worst phase” does Stalin’s regime lose its base of social consensus and its “enthusiastic supporters”, who continue to be motivated by both ideology as well as the opportunity for social advancement: it’s a “mistake” to read this permanent consensus “as merely an artifice of state censorship and repression."458 A tragic and paradoxical interaction takes place: as a consequence of robust economic and cultural development, as well as the horrifying vacancies created by repression, “tens of thousands of Stakhanovites become factory managers”, and a similar upward mobility takes place in the armed forces.459 In August of 1939, during the negotiations over the non-aggression pact, the chief- translator of the German foreign ministry visits Moscow and describes as follows the spectacle before him in Red Square and at the mausoleum dedicated to Lenin:
Before the mausoleum, a long line of Russian peasants waited patiently to see Stalin’s mummified predecessor in his glass tomb. Judging by their behavior and facial expression, the Russians gave me the impression of devout pilgrims. “Those who have been to Moscow and haven’t visited Lenin―an embassy staffer tells me―are worthless to the people of the Russian countryside."460
The generalized veneration of “Stalin’s predecessor” was also an indication of the wide base of  social consensus that the successor continued to enjoy. In any case, the deep divisions caused by the Great Terror are at least partially healed by the patriotic unity that takes hold during the resistance against the Nazi war of enslavement and annihilation. What’s certain is―and we cite once more a historian above suspicion of being an apologist for communism and “Stalinism”―“the victory  brings about an unparalleled increase not only in the international prestige of the Soviet Union, but also in the regime’s authority within the country”, so that “Stalin’s popularity reached its apex in the years following the war."461 This “popularity” remained intact until his death, and was also felt outside the USSR, and to a certain extent, even felt outside the international communist movement.


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