Leon Trotsky

Stalin –
An Appraisal of the Man and his Influence


THE reader will note that I have dwelt with considerably more detail on the development of Stalin during the preparatory period than on his more recent political activities. The facts of the latter period are known to every literate person. Moreover, my criticisms of Stalin’s political behavior since 1923 are to be found in various works. The purpose of this political biography is to show how a personality of this sort was formed, and how it carne to power by usurpation of the right to such an exceptional role. That is why, in describing the life and development of Stalin during the period when nothing, or almost nothing, was known about him, the author has concerned himself with a thoroughgoing analysis of isolated facts and details and the testimony of witnesses; whereas, in appraising the latter period, he has limited himself to a synthetic exposition, presupposing that the facts—at least, the principal ones—are sufficiently well known to the reader.

Critics in the service of the Kremlin will declare this time, even as they declared with reference to my History of the Russian Revolution, that the absence of bibliographical references renders a verification of the author’s assertions impossible. As a matter of fact, bibliographical references to hundreds and thousands of Russian newspapers, magazines, memoirs, anthologies and the like would give the foreign critical reader very little and would only burden the text. As for Russian critics, they have at their disposal whatever is available of the Soviet archives and libraries. Had there been factual errors, misquotations, or any other improper use of material in any of my works, that would have been pointed out long ago. As a matter of f act, I do not know of a single instance of any anti-Trotskyist writings that contain a single reference to incorrect use of source material by me. I venture to think that this fact alone is sufficient guarantee of authenticity for the foreign reader.

In writing my History [of the Russian Revolution] I avoided personal reminiscences and relied chiefly on data already published and therefore subject to verification, including only such of my own testimony, previously published, as had not been controverted by anyone in the past. In this biography I ventured a departure from this too stringent method. Here, too, the basic warp of the narrative is made up of documents, memoirs and other objective sources. But in those instances where nothing can take the place of the testimony of the author’s own memories, I felt that I had the right to interpolate one or another episode from my personal reminiscences, many of them hitherto unpublished, clearly indicating each time that in the given case I appear not only as the author but also as a witness. Otherwise, I have followed here the same method as in my History of the Russian Revolution .

Numerous of my opponents have conceded that the latter book is made up of facts arranged in a scholarly way. True, a reviewer in the New York Times rejected that book as prejudiced. But every line of his essay showed that he was indignant with the Russian Revolution and was transferring his indignation to its historian. This is the usual aberration of all sorts of liberal subjectivists who carry on a perpetual quarrel with the course of the class struggle. Embittered by the results of some historical process, they vent their spleen on the scientific analysis that discloses the inevitability of those results. In the final reckoning, the judgment passed on the author’s method is far more pertinent than whether all or only a part of the author’s conclusions will be acknowledged to be objective. And on that score this author has no fear of criticism. This work is built of facts and is solidly grounded in documents. It stands to reason that here and there partial and minor errors or trivial offenses in emphasis and misinterpretation may be found. But what no one will find in this work is an unconscientious attitude toward facts, the deliberate disregard of documentary evidence or arbitrary conclusions based only on personal prejudices. The author did not overlook a single fact, document, or bit of testimony redounding to the benefit of the hero of this book. If a painstaking, thoroughgoing and conscientious gathering of facts, even of minor episodes, the verification of the testimony of witnesses with the aid of the methods of historical and biographical criticism, and finally the inclusion of facts of personal Life in their relation to our hero’s role in the historical process—if all of this is not objectivity, then, I ask, What is objectivity?

Again new times have brought a new political morality. And, strangely enough, the [swing of the pendulum of history has] returned us in many respects to the epoch of the Renaissance, even exceeding it in the extent and depth of its cruelties and bestialities. Again we have political condottieri, again the struggle for power has assumed a grandiose character, its task—to achieve the most that is feasible for the time being by securing governmental power for one person, a power denuded to a merciless degree [of all restraints previously formulated and hitherto deemed necessary]. There was a time when the laws of political mechanics painstakingly formulated by Machiavelli were considered the height of cynicism. To Machiavelli the struggle for power was a chess theorem. Questions of morality did not exist for him, as they do not exist for a chess player, as they do not exist for a bookkeeper. His task consisted in determining the most practicable policy to be followed in regard to a given situation and in explaining how to carry that policy through in a nakedly ruthless manner, on the basis of experiences tested in the political crucibles of two continents. This approach is explained not only by the task itself but also by the character of the epoch during which this task was posed. It proceeded essentially from the state of development of feudalism and in accordance with the crucial struggle for power between the masters of two epochs—dying feudalism and the bourgeois society which was being born.

But throughout the nineteenth century, which was the age of parliamentarism, liberalism and social reform (if you close your eyes to a few international wars and civil wars), Machiavelli was considered absurdly old-fashioned. Political ambition was confined within the parliamentary framework, and by the same token its excessively venturesome trends were curbed. It was no longer a matter of outright seizure of power by one person and his henchmen but of capturing mandates in as many electoral districts as possible. In the epoch of the struggle for ministerial portfolios Machiavelli seemed to be the quaint ideologist of a dimly distant past. The advent of new times had brought a new and a higher political morality. But, amazing thing, the twentieth century—that promised dream of a new age for which the nineteenth had so hopefully striven—has returned us in many respects to the ways and methods of the Renaissance!

This throw-back to the most cruel Machiavellism seems incomprehensible to one who until yesterday abided in the comforting confidence that human history moves along a rising line of material and cultural progress. [Nothing of course is further from the truth. That is too clearly apparent today to require verbal proof. But whatever our qualifications or disagreements on this] score, all of us, I think, can say now: No epoch of the past was so cruel, so ruthless, so cynical as our epoch. Politically, morality has not improved at all by comparison with the standards of the Renaissance and with other even more distant epochs. [No social order dies gently and willingly when the day of its usefulness passes. All epochs of transition have been epochs of violent social struggles free of traditional moral restraints, epochs of life and death struggles.] The epoch of the Renaissance was an epoch of struggles between two worlds. Social antagonisms reached extreme intensity. Hence the intensity of the political struggle.

By the second half of the nineteenth century political morality had supplanted materialism (at least, in the imagination of certain politicians) only because social antagonisms had softened for a time and the political struggle had become petty. The basis of this was a general growth in the well-being of the nation and certain improvements in the situation of the upper layers of the working class. But our period, our epoch, resembles the epoch of the Renaissance in the sense that we are living on the verge of two worlds: the bourgeois-capitalistic, which is suffering agony, and that new world which is going to replace it. Social contradictions have again achieved exceptional sharpness.

Political power, like morality, by no means develops uninterruptedly toward a state of perfection, as was thought at the end of the last century and during the first decade of the present century. Politics and morals suffer and have to pass through a highly complex and paradoxical orbit. Politics, like morality, is directly dependent on the class struggle. As a general rule, it may be said that the sharper and more intense the class struggle, the deeper the social crisis, and the more intense the character acquired by politics, the more concentrated and more ruthless becomes the power of the State and the more frankly [does it cast off the garments of morality].

Some of my friends have remarked that too much space in this book is occupied by references to sources and my criticism of these sources. I fully realize the inconveniences of such a method of exposition. But I have no choice. No one is obliged to take on faith the assertions of an author as closely concerned and as directly involved as I have been in the struggle with the person whose biography he has been obliged to write. Our epoch is above all an epoch of lies. I do not therewith mean to imply that other epochs of humanity were distinguished by greater truthfulness. The lie is the fruit of contradictions, of struggle, of the clash of classes, of the suppression of personality, of the social order. In that sense it is an attribute of all human history. There are periods when social contradictions become exceptionally sharp, when the lie rises above the average, when the lie becomes an attribute of the very acuteness of social contradictions. Such is our epoch. I do not think that in all of human history anything could be found even remotely resembling the gigantic factory of lies which was organized by the Kremlin under the leadership of Stalin. And one of the principal purposes of this factory is to manufacture a new biography for Stalin … Some of these sources were fabricated by Stalin himself … Without subjecting to criticism the details of progressively accumulating falsifications, it would be impossible to prepare the reader for such a phenomenon, for example, as the Moscow trials …

Hitler is especially insistent that only the vivid oral word marks the leader. Never, according to him, can any writing influence the masses like a speech. At any rate, it cannot generate the firm and living bond between the leader and his millions of followers. Hitler’s judgment is doubtless determined in large measure by the fact that he cannot write. Marx and Engels acquired millions of followers without resorting throughout their Life to the art of oratory. True, it took them many years to secure influence. The writer’s art ranks higher in the final reckoning, for it makes possible the union of depth with height of form. Political leaders who are nothing but orators are invariably superficial. An orator does not generate writers. On the contrary, a great writer may inspire thousands of orators. Yet it is true that for direct contact with the masses living speech is indispensable. Lenin became the head of a powerful and influential party before he had the opportunity to turn to the masses with the living word. His public appearances in 1905 were few and passed unnoticed. As a mass orator Lenin did not appear on the scene until 1917, and then only for a short period, in the course of April, May and July. He carne to power not as an orator, but above all as a writer, as an instructor of the propagandists who had trained his cadres, including also the cadres of orators.

In this respect Stalin represents a phenomenon utterly exceptional. He is neither a thinker, a writer nor an orator. He took possession of power before the masses had learned to distinguish his figure from others during the triumphal processions across Red Square. Stalin took possession of power, not with the aid of personal qualities, but with the aid of an impersonal machine. And it was not he who created the machine, but the machine that created him. That machine, with its force and its authority, was the product of the prolonged and heroic struggle of the Bolshevik Party, which itself grew out of ideas. The machine was the bearer of the idea before it became an end in itself. Stalin headed the machine from the moment he cut off the umbilical cord that bound it to the idea and it became a thing unto itself. Lenin created the machine through constant association with the masses, if not by oral word, then by printed word, if not directly, then through the medium of his disciples. Stalin did not create the machine but took possession of it. For this, exceptional and special qualities were necessary. But they were not the qualities of the historic initiator, thinker, writer, or orator. The machine had grown out of ideas. Stalin’s first qualification was a contemptuous attitude toward ideas. The idea had… .

[On August 20, 1940, Trotsky was struck a mortal blow on the back of his head with a pickaxe and his brain wrenched out while he was reading a manuscript brought to him by the assassin. That is why this and other portions of this book remain unfinished.]

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Last updated on: 7 September 2009