Walter Held

Stalin in Reality and Legend

(December 1935)

From New International, Vol. 2 No. 7, December 1935, pp. 237–239.
Transcribed by Tex Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Two Stalin Biographies

Un monde nouveau vu à travers un homme
by Henry Barbusse

Aperçu historique du bolchevisme
by Boris Souvarine

Probably never before has historical forgery been so systematically practised as in the last 10 to 12 years in the Soviet Union. The history of two decades has had to be completely written anew in order to make Stalin, the “grey spot”, as the left Menshevik Sukhanov characterized him, the most important leader, next to Lenin, of the Russian Bolshevik party and the revolution.

All historic evidence, all previous writings on the ideological struggles of the party, the year of the revolution and the period of the civil war, has had to be carefully destroyed to permit the legend free play. And a career beckons only for that “historian”, or that red professor, who cunningly plays his part in this forgery; Siberia threatens all others. Thus a Yaroslovsky and a Popov write the history of the Bolshevik party so that Stalin is made to appear next to, and often even ahead of Lenin, as the theoretician of the party and the moulder of its policy. Voroshilov, Manuilski, and thousands after them, draw a new picture of the civil war. Against the ruinous leadership of the Red Army by Trotsky, who in union with the specialists and white guard officers had almost ruined the Russian revolution, there was always Stalin, who took the correct measures and finally insured victory. Recently this whole hodge-podge of lies, misrepresentation, falsification, and distortion of historical facts has been forced, so to speak, in compressed form, upon the attention even of the non-Russian reader.

Barbusse’s last book Stalin is advertised by the Stalinist publishers Editions Carrefour as the only “biography authorized by Stalin himself”. At just the proper time, therefore, a biography of Stalin appears in the French language which is “not authorized by Stalin”. Boris Souvarine, the well-known French communist and later an ultra-leftist, has undertaken to find the way back through this whole tangle of lies and forgeries, to the historical facts in order to give a really true picture of the political rôle and significance of Stalin. The bibliography in the appendix of the book comprises 25 whole pages and is testimony to the industry and scientific seriousness of the Souvarine work. (At the same time Souvarine informs us that he “had to exclude a large portion of the bibliography to reduce the size of the book.”)

If no especially new feature in the political psychology of Stalin emerges from Souvarine’s book for the reader of the works of Leon Trotsky, the opposition’s documents and the party history of the Russian social democracy, nevertheless the biographic collection based on such extraordinary knowledge of the material is of the greatest value and interest to all who recognize Stalinism as the decomposing poison of the modern labor movement and want to struggle against it. Souvarine proves to the very hilt that during the whole period of the preparation of the Revolution from 1900 to 1917 Stalin was nothing more than a “subaltern” in the Russian Social Democratic party. In the first ten volumes of Lenin’s Works, of which Souvarine aptly says in his introduction, “the facts, ideas and people of a whole epoch” are treated, the name of Stalin is not found. Stalin was not present at the congress which split the Russian social democracy at London in 1903, although he does appear at the reconciliation congress at Stockholm in 1906. (Incidentally, let us remark that Barbusse makes the Stockholm party congress appear to be the high mark of the struggle against Menshevism, and of all people makes Stalin a spokesman of this struggle. Who will take the trouble to look up the protocols?) Stalin appears at the congress under the name of Ivanovitch as the Bolshevik delegate from the Tiflis district. His appearance itself is little more than pathetic. His intervention in the agrarian question the Menshevik Dan disposes of with two sentences. Both of his other utterances on the questions of the character of the Russian Revolution (where he loses himself in the dilemma: either bourgeois or proletarian revolution) and the participation in the Duma elections (where, despite Barbusse’s opposite contention, he is for the boycott) receive no notice whatever.

For the following period of the depression from 1907 to 1911, as Trotsky has already established, there can be found no document, article, letter or resolution wherein Stalin formulated his estimate of the situation and its perspectives. “It is unlikely that such documents do not exist. It is unlikely that they have not been preserved, – if only in the archives of the police. Why are they not published?”

Nevertheless the industrious research of Souvarine is successful in digging up other evidence as political documents for Stalin’s existence in this period. Koba – Stalin’s party name in this period – was arrested in March, 1908 and spent eight months in prison at Bailov. Here he stayed together with a Social-Revolutionist, Simon Verechtschaks, who on January, 1928, published in the newspaper Dui, appearing in Paris, his recollections of Stalin in Prison. The writings of Verechtschaks were used by Demian Biedny, the feuilleton writer of the Pravda and follower of Stalin for articles in honor of his master which appeared in Pravda on February 7, 1928, and December 20, 1929, under the title A Conclusive Testimony. Souvarine relates that portion of Verechtschaks recollections which Demian Biedny cautiously withheld from the Russian readers. One day a young Georgian was cruelly mishandled by his fellow-prisoners in the corridors of the Bailov prison. He was suspected of being a provocateur. Later it was disclosed that the unfounded rumor had emanated from Stalin. At another time the ex-Bolshevik Mitka G. killed a young worker with a knife whom he, without being acquainted with him, considered to be a spy. Called to account, Mitka confessed that Koba had put him up to the deed. To this period belong also other facts of Stalin’s life which Souvarine divulges from other sources. At the close of the year 1901, Stalin suddenly left Tiflis. The Georgian social democratic magazine Brdzolis Khma (Echo of Struggle) gives the explanation for his sudden departure: Stalin (Dyougadwili), by means of slander and intrigue, had attempted to undermine the position of the leader of the organization, S. Djibladze. After he had been warned a number of times he was found guilty of spreading an incredible slander and unanimously expelled from the Tiflis organization.

It seemed appropriate to us to gather all these evidences of Stalin’s character, because later, we too shall get to know still other features of the same “moral cowardice” – as Bucharin puts it – quoted by Trotsky in My Life. Trotsky narrates how one day in the midst of the confusion of the civil war, which otherwise welded the whole party together in moral unity, Menshinski had come to him and told him that Stalin was attempting to involve Lenin in an intrigue against him. One remembers also Stalin’s shameful betrayal of the mortally sick Lenin in the Georgian affair during the spring of 1923, and the whole essence of Stalin’s method of struggle – that of casting suspicion and dishonor instead of by political argument and conviction. From the smuggling in of the “Wrangel officer” (read: agent of the G.P.U.) into the ranks of the Opposition, to the fantastic amalgam of the Kirov assassination can be seen the direct continuation of his methods while imprisoned in Bailow. With Stalin’s rise to sole ruler, his defects of character were raised to the plane of the Soviet state and the Comintern. Only in this way can the monstrous degree of degeneracy and demoralization which the Stalin bureaucracy has brought upon the labor movement be understood. Beginning with the E.C.C.I. down to the last street nucleus in Paris or Cape Town there is no discussion with anyone who does not agree with Stalin’s “general line”. He is fought with slander and threats of the lowest order; he is accused of provoking foreign intervention with the White Guards, of being in the pay of the police, of the Fascists in the capitalist countries, and so on. Each political “general hue” creates its own type of functionary and the Stalinist functionaries have become the flesh and blood of their master.

But after this degression let us follow further Stalin’s political career as it is unfolded in Souvarine’s book. A letter of Stalin’s of the year 1911, in which he takes a position on the faction tights of the emigrés, has not been withdrawn from publication. Stalin said: “We have heard about the tempest in the tea-cup, the bloc of Lenin-Plechanov on the one hand, and Trotsky-Martov-Bogdanov on the other. As far as I know the workers incline toward the former. In general, however, they mistrust the emigrés. Why should they bother themselves about them; as far as we are concerned, everyone who has the interest of the movement at heart does their own work. The rest will follow of itself. That is in my opinion the best.” Souvarine here protects Stalin. In his opinion Stalin is expressing the healthy attitude of the rank and file on discussions of philosophical and other complicated questions. It appears to us, however, as if we were facing here also an evasion of Souvarine for thorough consideration of theoretical questions. But even if we accept Souvarine’s attitude as that of the real rank and file, is not Stalin presented to us as the theoretical luminary light of the party? We recall also Stalin’s later utterances about emigration with which he reproaches the leaders of the Opposition in his struggle against them. And when in the year 1932, the interviewer (Emil Ludwig) asks Stalin whether the emigration, in his opinion, was not of great significance for the Russian revolution, the latter answers disparagingly: “Not at all. the emigrés only sat in cafes and played chess.” And woe to him who, disregarding the Master, dares to remember that Lenin spent 16 years of his life in emigration. Emigration, connection with the International and its problems, study of languages, all that is repulsive to the narrow Russian nationalist. Not until 1925 does he consent to be elected to the presidium of the C.I., in order to ruin it. “The Comintern will never make a revolution, not even in 90 years,” said Stalin in Trotsky’s presence in the Politbureau. And Souvarine also quotes Stalin’s well-known expression, divulged by Lominadze: “The Communist International represents nothing and exists only by virtue of our support.” Only on the basis of such a mentality could the “theory of the construction of socialism in one country” arise.

In the year 1912 Stalin worked on the newspaper Zviezda and took part in the founding of Pravda. According to Barbusse [1] Stalin was the real spiritus rector of this paper. Yet the various versions of the history of the Bolshevik party by Zinoviev, Nevski, Tchevolin, Bubnow and even that of Jaroslovsky do not even mention Stalin’s collaboration on the Pravda and Zviezda. And Souvarine produces another mass of proof for the absolute insignificance of Stalin’s collaboration on these papers. In 1913 Stalin spent some weeks abroad, in Cracow and Vienna. Lenin, who was favorably impressed by him, induced him to write an article on the national question, the only product of Stalin’s literary activity in the pre-revolutionary period. And this article, a sophomoric essay, the leading ideas of which came directly from Lenin, has since been reprinted over and over again. Whole schools of red professors dedicated themselves to the task of preparing a glossary of the book in order to justify Stalin’s pretensions to the dignity of theoretician. Stalin returned to Petrograd as an obedient pupil of Lenin. He became the intermediary between Lenin and the Duma fraction, i.e., he brought the latter the tactical advice and the drafted speeches of the party’s “brain”. In this rôle of the obedient instrument, Stalin gained the confidence of Lenin and only in this rôle did he display certain merits. No sooner was he deprived of Lenin’s sure leadership than his own empiricism led him on the road of the least resistance, of adaptation, of opportunism. And because he could hope to gain a position in the party only by complete submission to Lenin, obedience becomes for him the highest virtue. This obedience he deifies and abstracts from the politics which it should serve and which, after Lenin’s death, he claims for himself and his régime. But Lenin himself foresaw the results of such a regime in that letter to Zinoviev and Bucharin which the latter cited in 1928 when the ground began to shake under his feet: “When you begin in the International, to replace the intelligent and independent men by obedient blockheads you will inevitably dig its grave.”

In 1913 Stalin is again arrested. At the outbreak of the war he is in the Siberian steppes. Again for the whole period from 1913 to 1917 every vestige of Stalin’s political activity or expression of opinion is destroyed. Of course, in the struggle against “Trotskyism” all critical quotations which Lenin dedicated to Trotsky’s Nashe Slovo have been advertised hundreds of times. But what was Stalin’s opinion during this period? Where did he defend revolutionary defeatism and the idea of the New International, asks Trotsky? It is really impossible that the future “leader of the world proletariat” wrote nothing in these decisive years. And Souvarine adds:

“Stalin has not only suppressed his writings of this epoch but also taken care that they are not made use of by others. In the extensive collection Katorga i Ssylka (Fortress and Exile), the periodical of the former prisoners and exiles, where the survivors of Czarist oppression are free to discourse on even their most trivial recollections, above all if they can conjure up a personality, Stalin does not exist. The other historical publications, a mass of documents and recollections, likewise do not mention him. A singular case in Russia which justifies the most unfavorable conclusions.”

These “unfavorable conclusions” find their confirmation in Stalin’s political appearance in the first few weeks after the February revolution which freed him from exile. Muranov, Kamenev and Stalin, after their return to Petrograd, took over the editorship of Pravda and thereby actually determined the policy of the Bolshevik party (i.e., the C.C. which had constituted itself as such) also delegated Stalin as its representative to the executive committee of the Soviets. But here he was unable to play even the smallest sort of a rôle and only confirmed the judgment which Trotsky passes on him in his latest pamphlet (Workers’ State, Thermidor and Bonapartism):

“Stalin was never a leader of the masses and according to his whole nature could not he; he is the chief of the bureaucratic chiefs, their embodiment and apotheosis.”

In a bureaucratic manner Stalin attained the editorship of the Pravda. There he put forth the line of “conditional defense of the Fatherland”, i.e., the Bolsheviks would support the policy of the Provisional government to the extent that its policy corresponded to the will of the Menshevik-Social Revolutionary Soviet. The issue of the Pravda of March 15 which defends this policy became a real political sensation. Souvarine quotes from the memoirs of the Bolshevik Shlyapinkov:

“The 15th of March, the day of the publication of the first number of the ‘reformed’ Pravda became a day of rejoicing for the defenders of the Fatherland. From the Tauride Palace, from the members of the Duma committee to the executive committee, the heart of the revolutionary democracy, everyone was filled with one single piece of news, the victory of the moderate, the reasonable Bolsheviks over the extremists. In the central executive committee we were greeted with poisonous smiles. That was the first and the only time that the Pravda received the approval of the defenders of the Fatherland of the worst sort.”

The proletarian vanguard was not so delighted with Stalin’s little coup d’etat as were the Menshevik parliamentarians. Let us listen to Shlyapnikov further:

“In the factories this issue of the Pravda called forth dismay among the followers and sympathizers of our party and sarcastic satisfaction among our enemies. In the editorial rooms of the Pravda inquiries as to the cause of the sudden turn piled up.

“The anger in the workers’ quarters grew considerably and as the workers learned that three former editors of the Pravda had come from Sibera and gotten hold of the paper, they demanded their expulsion from the party.”

If one believes the first edition of Stalin’s On the Road to October, he wrote only three articles up to Lenin’s arrival, of which the first closes with the necessity “of the democratic republic for all citizens of Russia” (thus, without distinction of class); the second demands “pressure upon the Provisional Government for the purpose of opening peace negotiations” (that was the policy of the Mensheviks); the third raises the demand, in equivocal fashion, of the convocation of an All-Russian Soviet. In his foreword to this edition Stalin explains “self-critically” that the three four articles “reflect a certain hesitation of the majority of our party”. What Souvarine forgets to add is that the first two article and the self-critical passage in the foreword have disappeared from the later editions. Stalin had in the meantime receive’ the consecration of infallibility. Barbusse the “sole biographer authorized by Stalin”, removes all these difficulties in the simplest way imaginable. He has Stalin arriving in Petrograd only at the same time as Lenin – whereby the former becomes from the very outset the champion of Leninist intransigeance against the “Kamenevist opportunism” Thus to put it politely (de mortuis nil nisi bonum), he carries over to the writing of history the poetic fantasy of the fiction writer.

After Lenin’s arrival Stalin again disappears behind the scenes and limits himself to the rôle of the obedient subaltern. He never attempts to clarify himself on his own errors nor to take the road to the Leninist conception. He is silent and obeys. Then there occurs only one more slip – when the “tireless fighter and real organizer of the insurrection” of the legend places himself just at the critical moment defensively in front of the “strikebreakers” Zinoviev and Kamenev. This does not prevent the miserable – pardon – Barbusse from writing that Trotsky “with certain reservations” shared the position of both.

In the government of People’s Commisars, Stalin is made Commissar for Natonalities and later Commissar of Workers and Peasants Inspection, but he neglects both of these offices which as a result, are cast into the greatest disorder. During the years of the civil war, this would be understandable – if still not excusable – had Stalin at least played the rôle at the civil war front which legend has attributed to him. The real rôle of Stalin in Tzaritzin and on the southern front, has already been convincingly traced by Trotsky and Souvarine’s portrayal, which here again is based on official documents, bears Trotsky out on all points, so that not a loophole remains of all the fairy tales of Voroshilov, Manilsky and Barbusse. Moreover, here is that a proof looks like when Stalin’s authorized biographer once takes the trouble of citing a document. In Barbusse’s book the text of a telegram (of December 31, 1918) to the Revolutionary Military Council reads as follows:

“Received from the environs of Perm a series of reports from the party which indicate drunkenness and a catastrophic condition of the Third Army. I was thinking of sending Stalin.”

In reality the full text of this telegram of Lenin’s to Trotsky reads as follows:

“From below Perm there are a series of reports from the party on the catastrophic condition of the army and drunkenness. I am sending them to you. It is demanded that you come down there. I was thinking of sending Stalin because I am afraid that Smilga is too soft toward X—, who, they say, also drinks and is incapable of restoring order. Telegraph your opinion.”

A mere reconstruction of even this telegram, which is not to Stalin’s disadvantage proves the deep unanimity between Lenin and Trotsky in the years of the civil war and the third rate rôle of Stalin.

Stalin’s work in the Commissariat of Nationalities and in the Workers and Peasants Inspection is treated by the sick Lenin in 1922-23 with merciless criticism. Stalin’s brutal policy of suppression of the Georgian Communists who were striving toward relative autonomy is flayed in Lenin’s last writings in the strongest terms and as a result led to Lenin’s letter to Stalin which he broke off all relations with the latter. And Lenin said about Stalin’s Workers and Peasants Inspection in his famous article Better Less but Better.

“Let us say it openly. At present the inspection has not the least authority. Everyone knows there is no worse management than our inspection.”

About the post-Leninist period, about the regime of the Troika, the United Opposition bloc, Stalin’s zigzags, the Chinese revolution, the overhead, disproportion and contradiction of the Five-Year Plan, we hear no facts which have not already become known from Trotsky’s writings.

There is no doubt that Souvarine’s book worthy of serious attention. How far some of his sources (the Georgian Mensheviks, etc.) are reliable is naturally very hard to judge. As regards the presentation itself, Souvarine very often loses himself in details. In addition, the book is not quite free of repetitions. Yet the weakest passages of the book are clearly those wherein Souvarine’s own conceptions are expressed. Thus he identifies himself precisely with the weakest points of the Luxemburg criticism of the Russian Revolution; namely, Rosa’s position on the agrarian question and on the national problem. But Paul Levi, as early as the fall of 1921 when he published Rosa’s pamphlet, was able to state in his foreword that in these questions history had criticized Rosa’s critics. By defending Rosa Luxemburg’s point of view Souvarine contradicts himself. In his struggle against the Georgian communists in 1923, Stalin with good grounds was able to base himself on Rosa’s arguments in favor of centralism against federalism. (It is still a question, however, if Rosa alive would have been in agreement.) Yet Souvarine condemns Stalin’s policy without in this connection going into the theoretical side of the problem. Souvarine also does not let the method of struggle of the Left Opposition go uncriticized and accuses it of great tactical errors. Of course, there is nothing sacrosanct for us in the policy of the Opposition, and we would only welcome a detailed study of these questions. But we are afraid that Souvarine will not have very much to say on this question. For example, he considers it a mistake on the part of the Opposition that, along with the serious errors in the Russian question, it dragged the Chinese and Anglo-Russian Committee questions into the discussion in the sharpest form. In his opinion Bucharin, Tomsky, etc. were thereby compelled to rally around Stalin. Had criticism been limited to Stalin’s Russian policy, he maintains, Stalin’s faction would surely have disintegrated. We believe that here Souvarine is making a great mistake. The Opposition fought precisely under the banner of international revolution against Stalin’s limited nationalism. If the Opposition had allowed Stalin’s national limitation to be forced upon itself its defeat would only have been more complete. Souvarine also contradicts himself when he accuses Trotsky of claiming infallibility. Souvarine himself often enough quotes precisely such passages from Trotsky in which the latter acknowledges his mistakes, such as Trotsky’s attitude toward the Bolsheviks before 1917, the question of the Brest-Litovsk peace, he pursuit of Kolchak, etc. Not only that, but one of the most recent pamphlets of Trotsky’s, Workers’ State, Thermidor and Bonapartism, is dedicated to self-criticism on the question of the Thermidor analogy. To be sure, Trotsky, to the misfortune of Souvarine, the little narrow-minded S.A.P.ers, etc., who level the same accusation of the “claim of infallibility”, sticks by his opinions and fights for them uncompromisingly, as the course of historical events confirms the correctness of his point of view and the fatal errors of his opponents.

It would lead us too far afield to examine all of Souvarine’s mistakes here. Let us be content with a smile when he characterizes the Trotskyist tendency as opposed to Stalinist theocracy as a sort of Jansenism in contradiction to which completely enlightened rationalism is to be found only in Souvarine. Our greatest difference with Souvarine, however, lies in the question of whether the bureaucracy in the U.S.S.R. represents a new class which only a new revolution can remove. To his well-known hypothesis Souvarine adds no new proof in his book. What property forms are typical of this “class” in contradistinction to the feudal nobility or to the bourgeoisie he is unable to say. [2] From the false estimation of the bureaucracy as a new class, there follows for Souvarine, with regard to the further development of the U.S.S.R., an extremely dangerous, fatalistic and in the last analysis counter-revolutionary perspective. Souvarine leaves the question of curing the U.S.S.R. from the evil of bureaucratism to a new war. The Russo-Japanese war ended with the Revolution of 1905, the participation of Russia in the world war with the Revolution of 1917; at the end of a new war the Russian workers will shake off the bureaucracy. Therein lies Souvarine’s wisdom. By means of his fatalistic perspective Souvarine furthermore arrives at the same plane of limited national thinking from which Stalin’s theory of socialism in one country arose. The conception of the bureaucracy as a class prevents him from seeing the dialectic function of the bureaucracy. Despite its rôle as grave-digger for the Soviet state and the international revolution, it defends in its own peculiar way the gains of the October Revolution against world capitalism.

In case of an attack of imperialism on the Soviet Union the world proletariat must not leave the Soviet Union to its fate and rely upon the workers there to settle with the bureaucracy. It must defend the Soviet Union even in its present condition, naturally without giving up its criticism of the Stalin bureaucracy for one single second. In this respect Trotsky has used a comparison which is striking in its simplicity. Just as we will defend Leon Blum (one might also say Thorez) against an attack of the Fascists, despite their policy which is so fatal for the French proletariat, so we defend the U.S.S.R. against world imperialism. The freeing of the U.S.S.R. from the Stalinist tumor is the task of the international revolution. The precondition for victory is the creation of the Fourth International. If the October Revolution and the creation of the Third International signified a basic revival of Marxism coming from Russia, from the East, so today the workers of western Europe and America are in a position to regain the Russian workers for revolutionary Marxism. In a word, to make the rejuvenation of the Soviet Union dependent upon the fatalist hope on the outcome of the next war can only be the idea of salon revolutionists and babblers (who not infrequently become direct agents of reactionary forces). The removal of the cancer of bureaucracy from the Soviet state is a task of the conscious struggle for the Fourth International.

Walter HELD


1. Souvarine does not discuss Barbusse’s book, for both books appeared almost at the same time. In spite of this, Souvarine’s book seems to be an answer to Barbusse’s.

2. The reader will find a detailed analysis of this question in Trotsky’s pamphlet, Soviet Union and the Fourth International.


Last updated on 4 September 2015