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Ian Birchall

Flowers for the grave digger

(June 1987)

From Socialist Worker Review, No. 99, June 1987.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Alex de Jonge
Collins £17.50/Fontana £5.95

The rose bud opens
Bluebells all around
The iris too awakens
Flowers wave in the wind

I HAVE always distrusted people who like flowers, and when I discovered the above poem by J.V. Stalin my suspicions were confirmed. (Doubtless many comrades will be interested to learn that Beria, Stalin’s murderous henchman, was a vegetarian.) If it’s anecdotes you want, de Jonge has got plenty.

After Lenin’s death Stalin realised that he had to establish himself as a theoretician, so he hired a philosopher to give him regular tutorials on Hegel’s Phenomenology of Mind. The tutor was not very successful; as a reward he was shot in 1937.

Stalin was bitterly opposed to mathematical economists (because they disagreed with his plan targets). So hostile was he to mathematics that he banned the production of desk calculators or cash registers and made accountants use the abacus.

During the purges one man was charged first with Trotskyism, then with Tartar nationalism. He was told that the authorities had “sent the file back saying they had exceeded the quota for Trotskyists but were short on nationalists”.

Stories like this are so good it doesn’t really matter if they aren’t true. As they may well not be. For de Jonge is not very scrupulous about his sources. If his bibliography is to be believed he has read a lot of books, but he hasn’t read them very carefully. On two points where I checked his references to Isaac Deutscher, he either failed to understand his source or wilfully distorted it.

But even if only half the material in de Jonge’s 517 page account is true it makes its point. Stalin was a very nasty piece of work and Russia under Stalin was the next best thing to hell on earth.

Buy why do we need a book to tell us that in 1987? Today the overwhelming majority of Communist Party members treat Stalin the way the Queen treats her mentally handicapped relatives – one simply doesn’t refer to them.

Of course the understanding of Stalin is still relevant. But for that we need an analysis, not just a catalogue of crimes. And analysis is something that de Jonge is incapable of giving us.

He simply cannot grasp the ideas and the circumstances that led people to make the 1917 revolution. As a result he cannot understand the Stalinist counter-revolution. He is like someone producing a detailed second-by-second record of the movements of a grave digger – without ever noticing the coffin and the corpse.

To be fair, de Jonge has one interesting insight. In his introduction he compares Stalin’s methods to those of a chief executive in a British corporation who never listened to advice and created fear by random sackings.

But he does not follow this up. For to do so would be to recognise that Stalin was a product of the same system that oppresses us here in the West.

De Jonge’s book is not wholly without interest, but if you want a serious political biography of Stalin that sets the man among the ideas and events of his time, Isaac Deutscher’s Stalin – for all its limitations – is still a hundred times better.

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