Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History: Volume 4, No. 4, South Africa: Reviews


Robert Tucker, Stalin in Power The Revolution From Above, 1928–1941, Norton, New York, 1992, pp. 707, £19.95

RECENTLY ISSUED in paperback, this is the second instalment of Robert Tucker’s Stalin trilogy, the first being Stalin as Revolutionary, which covered his life until 1929. It develops the thesis presented in the first volume which bases Stalin’s political career upon a combination of messianic Russian nationalism and a self-perceived role as Lenin’s only genuine successor. The period covered in Stalin in Power is, of course, when he put into practice the scheme which was to transform the Soviet Union, and would provide the model for the so-called ‘Socialist’ world, the demise of which we are now witnessing.

As in Stalin as Revolutionary, Tucker adopts a psychological approach to discover what made Stalin act in the manner he did. This centres around Stalin’s identification with his own conception of Lenin as a revolutionary hero – a conception that Lenin would have found highly disturbing, as it more than anything resembled a Caucasian mountain chieftain – and with his own self-hatred, which was based upon his recognition of his inability to match up to his mythical Lenin, and the knowledge that others recog-nised his shortcomings as well.

Although the consequences of these factors had been visible prior to 1929, their real significance only became evident once he had won out over his party rivals, and inaugurated his own ‘October’ with the First Five Year Plan. Tucker correctly says that ‘Stalin at the outset of the 1930s was not yet a dictator’, his supporters were ‘with exceptions, no collection of sycophantic yes-men’, and ‘he was not beyond having to contend with criticism, dissent and outright opposition in the Communist Party’ (pp. 120–1). Thus having established the ascendancy of his faction, he had to deal with dissent within it. The emergence of the Riutin opposition must have been all the more disturbing, as must have been the growing unease amongst other previously staunch supporters, such as Kirov and Ordzhonikidze, who were concerned at the grave problems caused by the collectivisation and industrialisation drives.

Tucker sees the Seventeenth CPSU Congress of 1934, the so-called Congress of Victors (or Victims, as he wittily puts it), as the breaking point. Although Stalin was almost smothered with sycophantic adulation, over 100 delegates voted against him (and his closest allies like Molotov and Kagan-ovich), and Kirov appeared as the most popular speaker.

All this was too much. For a long time, as Tucker puts it, ‘Stalin’s mental world was ... sharply split into trustworthy friends and villainous enemies – the former being those who affirmed his idealised self-concept, the latter, those who negated it’ (p. 164). Now those who had ‘affirmed his idealised self-concept’ were turning against him. And as he personified the new Soviet state and the Communist movement, those who opposed him were opposing him as that leader:

‘Unable to relinquish or scale down his view of himself as a Lenin-like genius of revolutionary politics, his only possible response was to see the critics and oppositionists as being, behind their appearance of loyalty to the party-state, conspiring enemies of it aiming to wreck the revolutionary cause by removing him as its successful leader.’ (p. 318)

Not only did Stalin feel obliged to have his opponents publicly branded as being guilty of all manner of heinous crimes, he actually had to believe in their guilt:

‘Only by believing in the victims’ treasonous designs or deeds could he come to terms with their failure to share his grandiose beliefs about himself, their actual or suspected disbelief in his supreme greatness as the party-state’s leader of genius. (p. 476)

Stalin was fully aware of the difference between how he wanted to appear and wanted others to see him, and what he and others knew he really was. Stalin had ‘to blot out of his mind the disparities between the idealised Stalin with whom he identified himself and the scheming, bungling, blemished, evil-doing Stalin that he very often had been and still was, never before so vilely as now’ (p. 477). And so ‘their confessions were an imperatively needed support for Stalin’s inner personality cult’ (p. 477). This is what Tucker sees as the basis for the grotesque procession of trials, each with its array of confessing defendants. Stalin’s extraordinary vengefulness was based upon his trait of projecting his own faults onto his enemies. Tucker explains how a person’s feelings of self-condemnation and self-hatred can be ‘so painfully disturbing that the individual feels driven to relieve himself by turning his self-hate outward against others whom he can freely denounce, accuse, despise, condemn and possibly punish’, to the extent that the person ‘actually experiences his own failings as those of others and his own self-condemnation as condemnation of others’ (pp. 162–3). The victims of Stalin’s terror were accused, either at show trials or in the NKVD’s cells, of wishing to destroy the party, cause economic havoc, encourage terror, and weaken the country’s defences. All this was being done alright – but by Stalin.

These factors cannot be discounted. The characteristics of an individual can have considerable impact upon a given situation, especially in a society in which social tensions are mediated through one particular person, who therefore exercises considerable power. Few would disagree that Stalin possessed particularly unpleasant personal characteristics. He must have experienced a profound crisis of confidence during the First Five Year Plan, when opposition amongst the population to the appalling conditions they were enduring came to his notice, and when members of his cohort started to criticise and even oppose him as they saw the consequences of his policies. The attempt to remove him as General Secretary at the Seventeenth Congress must have been the final straw, which set him on course for the Great Terror of 1936–38.

And yet there is a major problem with basing the features of Stalinism upon the psychology of the man himself. However much he personified his system, other Stalinist states have shared those basic features. The self-development of the leader cult, the nationalism, purges, denunciations, trials and the other self-justifying features which Tucker ascribes to Stalin’s personality have been replicated throughout the Stalinist world, usually in a depressingly similar form. It is true that the official Communist movement was a product of the Stalin era, and was modelled upon Stalin’s CPSU. However, the proliferation of national Stalinist cults based upon people with quite different backgrounds and personalities, and the basic simi-larities of Stalinist state systems, show that what lies behind Stalinism is a social formation, and not the phenomenalisation of the features of one, albeit very powerful, man.

This leads us on to consider Stalin’s concept of Soviet development. Tucker correctly places much significance upon Stalin’s Russian national-ism. Lenin and other Bolsheviks saw the Russian Revolution as merely the start of the global transformation to Socialism, in which Russia, whilst at first taking the lead, would become a less significant factor once revolutions occurred in more advanced countries. They regarded the backwardness and brutality of Tsarist Russia with undisguised repulsion. Stalin, however, saw Russia in an almost messianic manner. He harked back to Ivan the Terrible and Peter the Great, and saw their brutal methods of modernisa-tion as a model for his industrial and agricultural plans.

Generally speaking, Tucker considers Stalin acted along well thought-out lines rather than improvising on a pragmatic basis. If anything, this gives Stalin rather too much credit. Rather than working to some kind of worked-out schema, Stalin’s entire political thought gives a real impression of improvisation.

Tucker considers that by the mid-1920s Stalin was already thinking of his ‘October’ a ‘second revolution’, whilst being in a ‘tactical alliance’ with Bukharin (p59). If this be the case, why then did he ally himself with the moderate wing around Bukharin? It was the Left Opposition which called for collectivisation and industrialisation, and Stalin’s criticisms of it differed little from those of Bukharin. It was surely not merely tactics that caused Stalin in April 1926 to ridicule the concept of the Dneprostroi hydro – electric scheme.

Tucker says that Stalin jockeyed for position, not bringing the full implications of his policy into the open, and as late as November 1928 making ‘no explicit mention of an impending revolution from above’ or of being ready to resort to terror (p. 85). This was to ensure the support of his Central Committee colleagues, who as late as April 1929 ‘still did not perceive the necessity or possibility of wholesale collectivisation... whereas Stalin, inspired by his urge to go down in history as a combination of Lenin and Peter the Great, did’ (p. 86).

Stalin may have had from the early 1920s ideas about collectivisation and industrialisation, but it is unlikely that they went beyond vague thoughts. To hold messianic visions and grandiose intentions is one thing, to think about putting them into practice, let alone doing it, is quite another. Rather than seeing Stalin as tactically hiding behind Bukharin to defeat the Left Opposition, and then revealing his real programme in 1929, I would consider that Stalin, faced with the crisis of the NEP, leapt into the First Five Year Plan. It was certainly launched with a messianic fervour, but there were no properly thought-out plans, nor could there have been.

I think that Stalin gradually came around to seeing the necessity of industrialisation and collectivisation after the mid-1920s. The problem was not merely grain procurement. The Left Opposition had long recognised that the impressive growth figures under the NEP were due mainly to the return into operation of idle machinery, and that any further advance required real investment, and considered that Bukharin’s strategy of un-trammelled market relations would not be able to provide a large enough base for real economic advance. Anyway, by 1927 even Bukharin was starting to adopt some of the measures previously demanded by the Left Opposition.

Collectivisation was an emergency response to the peasants’ refusal to sell grain when there were limited manufactured products available in exchange. Tucker’s implication that grain procurement and goods sales prices were manipulated to ensure the peasants’ dissatisfaction, and thus provided an excuse for an attack upon them, does not preclude the fact that the regime was facing an incipient crisis in the countryside. Whilst there was little immediate danger of the emergence of a politically conscious capitalist class based upon the NEP, a crisis was emerging over the division of the total social surplus between the capitalist elements and the state sector.

Rather than being some kind of fully elaborated scheme, the continuous rewriting and upward adjustment of the First Five Year Plan prior to its implementation, the unplanned, ad hoc nature of the move into the Plan, the dramatic boosting of its targets, and the chaotic, uncontrolled nature of the whole affair, which Tucker outlines, all point to the improvisatory essence of it all.

Today more than ever the horrors of Stalinism are considered to be the logical and only possible outcome of Leninism. The most recent recruits to this melancholy chorus are former Stalinists in both the East and West, as they look with bemusement at the wreckage of the country on which they had looked so fondly, and give up on any hope of human liberation. One of the strengths of Tucker is that he – no friend of the Marxian project – shows the differences between the approaches of Lenin and Stalin. Whilst accepting that Lenin was not averse to using coercion during the first stages of the Soviet republic, Tucker considers that Lenin ‘would have opposed Stalin’s coercive peasant policy of 1928–29 and the forcible mass collectivisation that followed’ (p. 87).

The Marxian critique of Stalinist industrialisation and collectivisation is not, however, merely based upon the rejection of its coercive aspects, but is centred upon the absence of workers’ democracy. The question of working class democracy is crucial. Marxists are in favour of workers’ democracy not because it is a nice idea, but because it is essential to the replacement of capitalism by a rationally regulated society. The market can only be replaced by planning, and that is impossible without workers’ democracy.

Although the concept of workers’ democracy had never been high on the Bolsheviks’ agenda (after all, until 1917, seizing power had been seen as a distant objective), and Lenin’s own writings on the subject do not add up to a cohesive whole, workers’ democracy – the essence of a Socialist society – was never part of Stalin’s approach. Stalin could never have written State and Revolution.

As the book’s title shows, Tucker sees the great change of 1929 as a revolution. The First Five Year Plan was ‘revolutionary’ in the sense that it transformed Soviet society. But it was not revolutionary in the Marxian sense. It did not replace the state capitalist society of the NEP by a society run along the lines of workers’ management. It produced a social formation ruled by a bureaucratic elite that, despite the prodigious quantitative development, could not advance in a genuinely qualitative sense the forces of production. With neither the market nor democratic planning, the Soviet economy was essentially unregulated and out of control. What passed as ‘planning’ was a pathetic caricature. The social formation which emerged from the First Five Year Plan was not able to pose a genuine alternative to capitalism – a fact that should now be obvious.

And this is where the book fails. Tucker’s descriptions of the social, political and cultural aspects of the 1930s are excellent, even if one does not accept his psychological explanations. However, the economic results of the great change are covered in a few pages, and the nature of the Soviet social formation as it emerged from Stalin’s ‘October’ is not discussed at all. For it was in the 1930s that the image emerged of the Soviet Union as an historically viable economic colossus. This was not merely the case with the venal or gullible fellow travellers and Stalinists abroad, but with many who were critical of Stalin’s political regime from a liberal outlook, or, like Trotsky, from the viewpoint of revolutionary Marxism.

There was some excuse for this sort of outlook in the 1930s, especially as the capitalist world was experiencing a chronic slump whilst the Soviet economy was expanding. But over the last decade it became increasingly clear that the Soviet economy was grinding to a halt, and that this tendency towards stagnation was rooted in the very nature of the Soviet social formation, which can now be seen as historically unviable. As this social formation was the essential product of Stalin’s ‘October’, the lack of any discussion in this book of its economic basis, especially of the structure of the command economy, leaves an unfortunate gap in what is certainly one of the best biographies of Stalin.

Paul Flewers


B.C. Elwood , Inessa Armand: Revolutionary and Feminist, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1992, pp. 304, £29.95

THE CANADIAN historian Ralph Carter Elwood, already the author of the life of Roman Malinovsky, the worker-Bolshevik, Central Committee member and Duma deputy who turned out to be a police agent, now presents a study of another prominent Bolshevik who, although also ‘close to Lenin’, was of a quite different stamp. It is based on Tsarist police reports, its subject’s own letters to her family, and Lenin’s 118 published letters to her.

ince the only thing that all too many people known about Inessa Armand (1874–1920) is that she was rumoured to be Lenin’s mistress, let it be mentioned at once that Elwood, after careful examination of the evidence, finds this story not proven.

The orphaned niece of a French governess working in Russia, Inessa was brought up in the family of her aunt’s employer, and married one of his sons. The family were themselves of French extraction, hence the name Armand. Her husband was a rich textile manufacturer. Even after Inessa had left him, Alexander Armand continued to give her generous financial support, which enabled her to devote her time and energy to work for the causes she embraced – eventually Bolshevism. (Moneyed sympathisers like Armand, NA Shmidt and Savva Morozov supplemented ‘expropriations’ as a major source of funds for Lenin’s party.)

Inessa spent the first years of her marriage on an estate near Moscow in the early 1890s as a country lady doing good works among the local peasantry, while bringing up her children. She interested herself in a philanthropic Society for Improving the Lot of Women, which was active in ‘rehabilitating’ prostitutes in Moscow, and this helped her to gain know-ledge of the life of the urban poor, as well as the Tsar’s authorities’ suspicion and obstruction of any independent social reform activity. Through her brother-in-law (who became her second husband), a radically-minded university student, she was introduced to Marxism, and in her thirtieth year became a Bolshevik.

Being well off, she was able to help Lenin’s faction in many ways. When travelling around to organise illegal study groups, for instance, ‘a well dressed lady was less likely to arouse suspicions’. But her access to Alexander’s purse would have been far less important historically had it not meant giving Inessa greater opportunities to put into action her superior intelligence and dedication. Besides the ever-available money, there was also the internalised benefit of her privileged upbringing. Contemporaries who commented on her success as an organiser and propagandist often refer to her tact, good manners and easy way of dealing with all sorts of people. (She was also very good looking.)

Lenin appreciated Inessa’s qualities, and he made the most of them. She was given the task of organising the Bolsheviks’ party school at Lonumeau in 1911, and was the only woman lecturer there, fluent in French and English, she functioned often as interpreter and negotiator with non-Russian Socialists. The Bolshevik leader came to rely on her help in many situations:

‘Even more than Trotsky during the Iskra period, she became Lenin’s “cudgel” – someone to beat wavering Bolsheviks back into line, to convey uncompromising messages to his political opponents, to carry out uncom-fortable missions which Lenin himself preferred to avoid.’

In July 1914 she read on Lenin’s behalf his address to the conference which the International Socialist Bureau arranged with a view to reuniting Russia’s Social Democrats. Elwood describes her as having served for some years as ‘Lenin’s “Girl Friday”’.

As a well educated and independently minded woman, Inessa was, however, no stooge, and from time to time she would argue with the party leader on questions about which she felt strongly. A pamphlet she proposed to bring out on problems of marriage and the family provoked a sharp disagreement with him in 1915 on ‘free love’. In 1916 she sided with Bukharin and Piatakov against Lenin in the debate on the national question. It was wrong and dangerous, she considered, to say that ‘defence of the fatherland’ might be correct proletarian policy in certain circumstances, even under capitalism. If Engels was right in 1891 to say that the German workers ought to support their country’s war effort in a clash with Russia, why should that not apply in the 1914 war? (Lenin answered that in 1891 ‘there was no imperialism’, and the imperialist epoch began only in 1898 – by which year, of course, Engels was conveniently dead ...)

Inessa’s independence showed itself again after the October Revolution, when she took the ‘Left Communist’ line on Brest-Litovsk and other issues. But she accepted whatever tasks the party, now in power, assigned to her. Heading the Moscow Province Economic Council was not a job she would have chosen, but she did the work conscientiously and well. More to her taste was participation in the ‘Red Cross’ mission to France in 1919, nominally for the purpose of repatriating Russian soldiers who had served on the Western Front in the war, even though this attempt to make contact with revolutionary elements in the French labour movement came to nothing.

It was on her return home, though, that there began the year, her last, that Elwood describes as ‘the most productive and perhaps rewarding of her life’. Inessa had been specially interested from early on in the need for political activity among working women, and for the workers’ party to pay attention to ‘the woman question’ generally. Like others who held this view, she came up against not merely indifference but actual opposition from comrades who thought they spotted the cloven hoof of ‘bourgeois feminism’ in any particular concern with women’s problems distinct from the common problems of the working class. Inessa was largely responsible for getting the party to consent to the publication in 1914 of a newspaper, Rabotnitsa, devoted to the interests and demands of women workers. In Elwood’s opinion, ‘the loyalties won and the contacts made among women factory workers in 1914’, through this paper, ‘were to stand the Bolsheviks in good stead in 1917’.

After October she pressed for a national congress of working women, and, thanks to support from Sverdlov against opposition from Zinoviev, succeeded in getting such a congress held towards the end of 1918, with Lenin and Bukharin among the opening speakers. From this congress there emerged in 1919 the Zhenotdel, a special ‘women’s department’ of the party’s Central Committee (to be abolished in 1930). The need created by the Civil War for drawing women into factory work, to replace their mobilised menfolk (as well as for enlisting some of them for auxiliary tasks in the Red Army), made the party leadership more ready to back up Inessa’s agitation through the Zhenotdel for communal facilities – laundries, canteens, creches, etc – to be provided that would release women for such roles by relieving them from household drudgery.

The spring of 1920 saw the appearance, again on Inessa’s initiative, of the journal Kommunistka, which dealt with ‘the broader aspects of female emancipation and the need to alter the relationship between the sexes if lasting change was to be effected’. But the fifth number of this journal carried its founder’s obituary. Worn out by overwork and weakened by lack of food and warmth, she had died of cholera.

Brian Pearce

Due to lack of space, we regret that all other reviews have had to be held over.

Updated by ETOL: 10 February 2009