Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Irwin Silber

The Stalin question

First Published: Guardian May 21, 1973.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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Twenty years after his death March 5, 1953, Stalin’s proper role in history is still being debated in the world communist movement. The reason is not hard to find.

It was the vilification of Stalin, particularly by Nikita Khrushchev in his “secret” report at the 20th Congress of the CPSU in 1956, that was used as the cover by which modern revisionism came to power in the Soviet Union.

What was emphasized in the denunciation of Stalin–the “cult of personality,” violations of socialist legality, the deterioration of inner-party democracy–were, indeed, important matters. And in the process of redressing the historical balance, Marxist-Leninists would be making a serious error if they did not fully explore both the causes and effects of those mistakes.

But there was another dimension to the 20th Congress of the CPSU which was not as apparent at the time. While the exposure of Stalin’s “crimes” was absorbing attention, a fundamental ideological shift was emerging in the Soviet Communist’ party. It was a shift so dramatically at odds with the theoretical assumptions that had run like a red thread through the world Marxist movement from the time of the Communist Manifesto to Lenin, Stalin and Mao, that only the smokescreen of the expose of Stalin was capable of temporarily obscuring it.

In essence, what Khruschev and his associates were developing at that time was the fundamentally opportunist line which has characterized Soviet policy ever since. In the guise of attacking Stalin’s “autocratic rule,” Khrushchev was abandoning the ideological precepts that had built the Bolshevik party, won the revolution and constructed socialism.

While Stalin, as late as 1952, was writing about the inevitability of war in the era of imperialism, the “new” Soviet leadership spoke in terms of the two “superpowers guaranteeing the peace of the world.” While revolutionaries proclaimed that the principal contradiction in the world was between U.S. imperialism and oppressed peoples and nations, the “new” Soviet leadership elevated the tactic of “peaceful coexistence between the USSR and the U.S.” as the cornerstone of revolutionary strategy throughout the world. While Lenin, Stalin and Mao all pointed out that the class struggle continues and, in some ways, intensifies during the period of socialist construction, the “new” Soviet leadership developed the thesis that the dictatorship of the proletariat is no longer necessary for the development of socialism in the USSR.

It is because Soviet revisionism was developing both a foreign and a domestic policy based upon the above distortions of Marxism-Leninism that the attack on Stalin was as venomous and one-sided as it was. And so the struggle against revisionism today includes a defense of Stalin’s main role in history, not simply because he has been used as a scapegoat by the revisionists, but because his revolutionary contributions, in the long run, were much more significant than the negative aspects of his work and life– serious though those were.

What were Stalin’s accomplishments? He organized and led the first dictatorship of; the proletariat in any country in the world. He defeated Trotsky and Bukharin and led} the CPSU down the correct path for the building of socialism in the USSR, understanding the historic necessity for industrialization of the economy and the collectivization of agriculture. His brilliant diplomatic strategy in the period preceding World War II enabled the Soviet Union to break out of the political and military isolation. In this respect, history has already recognized the Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact of 1939 as one of the most inspired acts of international diplomacy of the modern epoch. Similarly, his leadership in unifying the Soviet people in the war against Hitler and the forging of the alliance with the capitalist democracies were indispensable to the ultimate defeat of Hitler.

At the same time, it would be a mistake to gloss over Stalin’s serious short-comings. Unfortunately, because of the struggle against revisionism today, some Marxist-Leninists feel that it somehow weakens the struggle if one discusses the negative side of Stalin. Such a view is mistaken, I believe. Communists have nothing to fear from the truth–if it’s the whole truth.

But there is an immediate and practical aspect to this question as well. Today, Marxist-Leninist forces in the U.S. are inexorably moving towards the creation of a new communist party. Such a party must, of course, be constructed on the Leninist principles of democratic centralism. But it was the deterioration and distortion of democratic centralism in the CPSU under Stalin’s leadership that was one of his gravest errors. For it was the loss of revolutionary fiber in the middle and upper ranks of leadership in the CPSU that enabled revisionism to capture that party after Stalin’s death.

Violations of socialist legality

Closely related to this question were the gross violations of socialist legality in Soviet society under Stalin’s leadership. While the struggle against counter-revolutionary influences and agents was an indispensable task, what developed was the substitution of arbitrary administrative measures by the state apparatus for the process of carrying the mass line to the people. In the course of this struggle, many good people were imprisoned and executed, along with many counter-revolutionaries. Such a situation made it possible for enemy agents and careerists to eliminate honest revolutionaries and to push themselves forward in the party and state apparatus.

Stalin’s style of leadership which was all too frequently subjective and, as time went on, increasingly out of touch with concrete experience, provided a very negative model. The commandism and isolation which characterized his relationship with others in the party led to a deterioration of collective leadership and a serious weakening of the indispensable process of criticism and self-criticism in political work.

Communists must not be embarrassed to talk about such matters. True, Trotskyists and other petty bourgeois radicals attempt to make political capital out of all this. But unlike these “pure” revolutionaries, Marxist-Leninists do not pretend that communists are perfect. The measure of a communist is not that one is always right, but that one’s class position is unwavering. The important thing is not the mistakes as much as it is the willingness and ability to correct mistakes.

In so far as Stalin is concerned, we can say that at all times his class position was unwavering. Twenty years after his death, Marxist-Leninists can reaffirm the judgment that Stalin was a revolutionary who rose to the responsibilities history had imposed upon the world’s first socialist state.

The unreasoned adulation of Stalin in his lifetime, although it had a material base in the concrete accomplishments of Soviet socialism, was a distortion of the proper relationship between revolutionary leadership and the masses of the people. The villification heaped upon Stalin after his death by the revisionists who seized control of the Soviet CP was an even greater distortion of both objective truth and Marxist-Leninist ideology.

Marxist-Leninists have the obligation to learn from Stalin, for he was a great revolutionary leader whose theoretical as well as practical contributions were indispensable to the revolutionary cause. At the same time, his errors and shortcomings bear a profound lesson for us as well.