Chris Harman


Let History Judge

(March 1973)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.56, March 1973, p.25.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Let History Judge
Roy Medvedev
Macmillan, £5.75.

Medvedev’s is the first book to emerge from inside Russia for more than 40 years that attempts to deal with the origins and development of the Stalin period. Using many unpublished accounts from leading figures who suffered in the purges of the 1930s, it provides a fascinating picture of what the ‘cult of the personality’ looked like from the inside. Any revolutionary of Maoist tinge who still has illusions about the nature of Stalin’s exercise of power should read through a few chapters of this book. It describes the mysterious circumstances of the Kirov assassination of 1934; the trials of the surviving leaders of the 1917 revolution – Zinoviev, Kamenev, Bukharin, Radek and the rest; the onslaught by Stalin on those of his own supporters surviving from the Bolshevik period, such as Ordzhonikidze; the massive bloodletting from every section of the state machine and the Communist Party; the eradication of every element surviving from the Bolshevik period.

Medvedev shows, with quotations from Lenin and descriptions of Soviet practice in the first and most difficult years of the revolution, that the methods of Stalinism were in no way those of Bolshevism. In the summer of 1918, for instance, the Bolshevik Party leadership sharply reprimanded the editors of a paper called Cheka Weekly, when it advocated the ‘torture’ of the British agent Lockhart. The Bolshevik government declared ‘the thoughts expressed in it (Cheka Weekly) are in gross contradiction with the policy and the tasks of the Soviet regime. Although the Soviet regime resorts of necessity to the most drastic measures of conflict with the counter-revolutionary movement ... the Soviet regime fundamentally rejects the methods advocated as despicable, dangerous, and contrary to the interests of communism.’

Under Stalin, it was not British agents, but old Bolsheviks who were tortured and forced to confess to a list of imaginary crimes. But despite its immense value as a description of Stalin’s methods of rule, there is one grave fault in Medvedev’s book: it does not and cannot provide any coherent explanation of how Stalinism as an historical phenomenon developed. The author never really goes beyond explanations in terms of Stalin’s own psychology.

The reason lies in the author’s starting point. He assumes that Russia today is some sort of socialist society, that in essence the form of government is correct, that the right people manage industry and the state in pursuit of the right goals. Medvedev, like many of the better-known oppositionists in Russia, has been part of a relatively privileged section within Russian society and is prone to accept without question the main features of that society. He merely wants certain liberal freedoms to be transplanted on to it. In short, he wants Stalinism without the secret police.

But the present structure in Russia is the result of a long historical struggle carred out by Stalin and his supporters against the heritage of the October revolution – against working-class democracy and internationalism in 1924, against workers’ living standards and the remnants of inner-party democracy in 1929, against the remaining old Bolsheviks in 1936. Indeed, Medvedev himself implicitly accepts this – he supports the political line of Stalin in all the main debates of the 1920s and early ’30s and merely objects to the ‘extreme’ methods Stalin used to resolve these debates.

Hence Medvedev’s inability to explain the Stalin cult and the purges. Stalin was not an accident. He was the living embodiment of the bureaucratic counter-revolution. His tyranny over the party and the apparatus was part and parcel of the vicious police regime used by the apparatus to destroy the elementary rights of workers and peasants. But Medvedev wants to accept the present power of the class that rules on the basis of Stalin’s methods, and to reject the methods themselves.

A final aspect of the book must be mentioned. The official ideology in Russia today is a bastardised and neutered ‘Marxism-Leninism’ – a ‘Marxism’ that has been turned upside down and emptied of content to justify the ends of the state-capitalist class. Many of the most radical opponents of the regime instinctively reject this official ideology, identify it with Marxism proper, and oppose both. Others try desperately to grope their way through the jungle of distortions, with few established guidelines to aid them (as for instance, did the construction worker Marchenko, who read all 40-odd volumes of Lenin’s collected works in a labour camp, in an effort to discover the truth about Stalinism and Marxism).

Those oppositionists who continue to use the language of Marxism are often the least radical, not the most radical. They maintain the termonology of the official ideology because their questioning of official society is not very deep. Their Marxism is hardly nearer to the real thing than is the doctrine of Brezhnev.

Medvedev is one of this last group. He has courageously fought against many manifestations of Stalinist rule. He has a tendency to quote copiously from Marx and Lenin, but he wants only a limited reform of Russian society, or at most a political revolution at the top, not the thoroughgoing social revolution that alone can satisfy the most fundamental aspirations of Russian workers.

Last updated on 16 November 2009