Peter Sedgwick

Stalinism minus Stalin

(Autumn 1961)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.6, Autumn 1961, pp.30-1.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

History of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union
Lawrence and Wishart, 10s.6d.

This, the latest official history of the Soviet Communist Party, has been compiled by ‘a group of authors’ headed by Mr Ponomarev, a senior Central Committee member. Mr Ponomarev has been, together with Suslov, concerned with relations with foreign Communist Parties, and is not new to the business of Party historiography: his little book The Plot Against The Soviet Union And World Peace, an interpretation of the Bukharin-Rykov trial, was published here by Lawrence and Wishart in 1938. Prominent among the other coauthors is the name of Academician I.I. Mintz. Mr Mintz has numerous historical achievements to his credit, including the chief editorship of the History of the Civil War in the USSR (Lawrence and Wishart 1937) and October 1917 in Russia (Lawrence and Wishart 1940), His ingenuity is proven by the fact that he managed to produce both of these histories without once mentioning the name of Trotsky as a participant of October. The English translation of the present History is edited by Mr Andrew Rothstein. Need more be said as to the quality of sponsorship behind the book? The last authorised history of the Soviet Party was, of course, the History of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (Bolsheviks): Short Course, which first appeared in 1938, and was eventually numbered among the volumes of Stalin’s Collected Works. Although the new History is twice as long as the Short Course, and diverges from its account on a number of points, its approach to the Party past is remarkably similar. The History, in fact, stands as a visible testimony to the lustiness of the Stalinist tradition in the Soviet Union. Of the literary targets of the Zhdanov period, we are told: ‘Works appeared written in an objectivistic spirit, which constituted a concession to bourgeois ideology’ (History, p.632). The History itself, like its predecessor, contains no concessions to objectivism, bourgeois or otherwise, To be sure, the story is less excitingly black-and-white than hitherto: the failure of the Polish campaign of 1921 was not, it seems, due to a ‘wrecker’s order issued by Trotsky’ (Short Course, 1950 English edition, p.299), but rather to ‘mistakes made by the Soviet High Command’ (History, p.334). The Kronstadt mutineers did not after all demand ‘Soviets without Communists’ (Short Course, p.308), but only ‘power to the Soviets, not to the parties’ (History, p.345) – although both sources are agreed that the mutiny was fomented by ‘White agents’. On the other hand, the History makes room for a story of Stalin’s arrival in beleaguered Petrograd ‘with full powers from the Central Committee’ (p.321), which is not in the 1938 version; but it counters this temptation towards the personality-cult by considerably toning down Stalin’s alleged part in the relief of the Southern front (‘Comrade Stalin’s plan’ of p.295 of the Short Course is not mentioned on the relevant p.324 of the History). And so on.

However, the basic continuity with ‘the Stalin school of falsification’ is best revealed by a comparison of the common omissions in the two accounts. It will be seen that even where there is no absolute continuity of content, there is – as in the case of certain quite fresh omissions in the new version – a direct and unweakened continuation of method. Thus, the list of Civil War leaders given in strict hierarchical order, beginning with Stalin, on p.303 of the Short Course is repeated, in equally strict alphabetical order, beginning with Andreyev, in the History (p.338), only with a few additions e.g.: Bubnov, Kosior, Postyshev (all loyal Stalinists killed in the maddest phase of the Great Purge). But among the names given in the Short Course list and missing from that in the History are those of Molotov and Kaganovitch. (Their names, together with that of Malenkov, have no place either in the History’s roll-call of Soviet leaders in the Second World War: see pp.554-555). And, most important, both the History and the Short Course, authorised and revised Stalinist Versions, leave out the names of all the Civil War heroes of actual Oppositionist tendencies – e.g. Tukhaczevsky, Smilga, Smirnov, Pyatakov. Lashevitch, Muralov, Rosengoltz, and of course (except as a blunderer) the creator of the Red Army and President of the Military Council of War, Leon Trotsky. Examples of this nature could be multiplied.

A few – a very few – historical ‘unpersons’ then, have been ‘rehabilitated’, and a few more ‘de-habilitations’ of recent vintage have been added. (Among these also is André Marty, who in 1938 had not yet been expelled from the French CP and so could be faithfully recorded as the leader of the Black Sea Mutiny (Short Course, p.294), an event which simply ‘broke out’ without any known leadership according to p.311 of the History). Otherwise we are given the mixture as before. The tale is spun out to early 1959, Stalin’s role is trimmed to a less obviously ridiculous size, and the Oppositionists are no longer, apparently, agents of Hitler.

What they are instead is not made clear at all. For one thing, the Moscow Trials, on which Messrs. Ponomarev and Rothstein have written, and Messrs. Lawrence and Wishart have published, at such great length, simply did not take place. The AV and the RV both tell us without the slightest evidence (p.344 and p.400 respectively) that the Left Opposition was aiming at ‘the restoration of capitalism’. But where the AV insists that the ‘Trotskyites’ were ‘enemies of the people’, ‘spies’, ‘fiends’, ‘Whiteguard pygmies’, ‘Whiteguard insects’, and ‘contemptible lackeys of the fascists’, and furthermore tells us that they were shot with the other Oppositions in 1934-1938 (as they in fact were), the RV (p.455) meekly stigmatises them as ‘an anti-Soviet, counter-revolutionary group’ by 1930. and thence drops them altogether down the memory-hole. It is this kind of interesting contrast that makes one wonder whether the writers and political leaders responsible for the History are any better, or perhaps even more evil, than those that wrote the Short Course.

Mintz, Ponomarev and their fellow experts nonetheless have their fill of blood. The trials of 1930 and 1931 (Mensheviks and technicians) run to the old pattern. ‘The criminal activities of these counterrevolutionary groups ..., the indignation of the people ... big meetings of factory workers and collective farmers ..., demanded severe punishment of the traitors ... severe and just sentences on the exposed enemies of the people’ (p.463). Twenty-five years on, ‘the Soviet Union rendered the brother Hungarian people effective assistance in putting down the counter-revolutionary up-rising’ (pp.650-651). Party historians are not men to be satisfied with discreet silence; they must have the occasional massacre or two flung at them to justify, if only to keep in practice.

The new Party History will be translated, no doubt, into all the languages of the 81 Communist Parties and used as a basic text in thousands of courses, schools and mass-meetings the world over. In the Soviet Union itself, in Eastern Europe and China it will probably be required reading for millions of college students, YCLers. The generation of naive fanatics reared on the Short Course will give place to a generation of depressingly junior cynics. Whatever kind of society it is that produces a book such as this, it is not a Socialist one. Whatever kind of ruling group it is that needs this book to twist young minds, it is some variety of exploiting class.

Peter Sedgwick

Last updated on 21 February 2010