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From Revolutionary History, Vol. 8 No. 3, 2003, pp.340–4.
Transcribed by Alun Morgan for Revolutionary History Website.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Jean-Jacques Marie
Fayard, Paris, 2001, pp. 870, Є30

JEAN-JACQUES Marie has devoted a lifetime to the study of Stalin. His first book on the subject (Staline, Editions du Seuil), published in 1967, ran to 297 pages. The present work, the culmination of 40 years of research, has 870. Not all the archives are yet open, and there may be new discoveries, but they are unlikely to change the overall picture much. This book should last for some considerable time as containing all anyone could reasonably want to know about ‘the father of the peoples’.

Biographers are supposed to have sympathy with their subjects. Marie, with a long history on the anti-Stalinist left, has nothing but contempt and loathing for his. Yet he retains a scientific objectivity. Myths and legends accrete around a figure as notorious as Stalin; Marie carefully dismisses those for which he cannot find documentary evidence, on the sound principle that what Stalin did was quite bad enough, without accusing him of things that he didn’t in fact do. Thus it seems unlikely that Stalin had Zhdanov murdered – not because of any tender-heartedness, but because Zhdanov had a bad heart and he didn’t need to (pp. 784–5). Marie gives no credence to the notion that Stalin may have been a police agent in the pre-revolutionary period (pp. 60–1). This has been a comforting myth for many – ‘Stalin was never a proper revolutionary’. The reality – that revolutionaries can go terribly wrong – is rather more unsettling. And it even appears dubious whether he ever enquired ‘How many divisions has the Pope?’ (pp. 703, 947).

Victor Hugo once wrote a poem in which an evil Eastern ruler is brought to the Last Judgement and is saved despite his manifold crimes because he once showed pity and brushed the flies off a dying pig. There are no pigs in Marie’s narrative, not one good deed in an unremitting narrative of cruelty and degradation.

Marie has unearthed as much as it is possible to know about Stalin’s youth, a period obscured by Stalin’s own activities in rewriting his life-story. His family background was one of savage brutality, and the youth was undoubtedly brutalised for life by the violence he received from his parents and the harsh life at the seminary. His contempt for others was soon visible in his personal life; he fathered illegitimate children, but seems to have shown no concern for their mothers. Politically, he had a contemptuous attitude towards ordinary workers, and regarded the creation of soviets in 1905 with extreme distrust (p. 89). Intellectually, he was mediocre. During the First World War, he was deported. While Lenin was studying Hegel and planning a new orientation for the labour movement, Stalin slumped into passivity; his Works contain just five letters for a period of four years (p. 130).

Stalin was out of his element in 1917, a year of mass action. From March to October 1917, he spoke in public only three times. He had little liking for the unpredictability of mass meetings, preferring to bury himself in the party apparatus (p. 145). As Marie notes, his talent was an ability to wait; not much use in an insurrection, but much more valuable in period of downturn (p. 157).

The early years of the Revolution were a harsh time, and severe measures were needed. In a situation in which experienced cadres were hard to come by, Lenin recognised Stalin’s talents and gave him jobs where the brutal enforcement of authority and efficiency were necessary. However, he played no rôle in the International, where a degree of tact was required in dealing with revolutionaries from a variety of different traditions. Stalin always despised the Comintern, and did not even attend the Seventh Congress in 1935, when the Popular Front line was put through (p. 457).

In 1921, when his second wife gave birth to her first son, she was expelled from the party for ‘lack of interest’ in party affairs during her pregnancy. Lenin asked for her readmission; Stalin did nothing in her defence (p. 221).

After Lenin’s death, Stalin seized his opportunity. His skills at bullying and manoeuvring enabled him to overcome his opponents, not only the principled Trotsky, but men like Zinoviev who were more or less on the same moral level as Stalin, but not quite as good at it. Zinoviev did oppose ‘socialism in one country’, but from a perspective of bureaucratic voluntarism and putschism, rather than a commitment to building a world revolutionary movement. And as President of the Comintern, Zinoviev had a vested interest in defending ‘internationalism’ (p. 300). Stalin was quite happy for Zinoviev’s Leningrad party to claim unanimous support, as it opened the way for Stalin to make similar claims (p. 304).

From now on, it was downhill all the way. The absurd logic of the purges took over, with the precious human resources of the state being wasted. The harm done to Russia’s own interests was immense. It is ironic that Stalin’s latter-day fan club are often christened ‘tankies’, when it was Stalin who put to death Tukhachevsky, the one general in the Red Army who realised that the car, and its cousin the tank, had made the horse and hence cavalry obsolete (p. 493).

By 1938, Stalin saw the need to call a halt to the excesses of the purge. But he had his supporters – the bright young men, generally careerists with no political baggage from the revolutionary period, who took over the jobs of those purged; as Marie points out, this new generation ‘owed him everything, while he owed them nothing’ (p. 534). There was also an element of pure sadism in Stalin’s methods, for example in the way that in his last years his closest and most loyal collaborators, Andreev and Molotov, were forced to support the purging of their own (Jewish) wives (pp. 787–8, 817).

The Second World War is often seen as Stalin’s finest hour. Marie shows what a shambles it in fact was. He clung frantically onto hopes of maintaining his alliance with the Nazis, even when it was clear that German invasion threatened. He was quite happy to pay any political price – in April 1941 he was planning to dissolve the Comintern as a gesture to Hitler (pp. 605–6). He was even willing to sign the pact of the Axis powers, Germany, Italy and Japan (p. 597).

When forced to fight Hitler, Stalin reacted with the only means he knew – terror. Russian losses in the war reached horrific proportions, but it should not be forgotten that a substantial number were victims of their own side. This was not ‘friendly fire’, in the American euphemism, but special NKVD forces situated behind the line to kill those retreating or deserting (p. 666). Giving a bizarre twist to the words of the Internationale which promise that ‘our bullets are for our own generals’, Stalin continued to execute his own senior officers; in 1942 no less than 30 generals were executed (p. 659). Doubtless, in Voltaire’s words, he wanted to ‘encourage the others’.

Certainly there was great heroism on the Russian side, but ultimately the war was not so much won by Russia as lost by Germany. Stalin’s regime was scarcely popular, but Nazi racial theories prevented the pursuit of a policy of encouraging collaboration, which had considerable success in such Western states as France. In the Ukraine the local peasants, sick of Stalin’s rule, welcomed German troops with flowers – and received vicious treatment in response (p. 634). Anticipating George Bush, the Wehrmacht declared that ‘Bolshevik soldiers’ had lost the right to be treated according to the Geneva Convention.

Stalin’s final years were squalid. Drink and lack of sleep had wrecked his body and mind. Estranged from his children, surrounded by piles of unopened correspondence (p. 852), he feared plots against him and became increasingly crude in his anti-Semitism (pp. 847–55). Most embarrassingly of all, his memory was in decline, and he could no longer remember who had been purged and who had not; on one occasion he proposed someone for a drama prize who was already in jail (p. 766).

The last glimpses we have of him show him slumped in his own urine, his eyelids too dry to close, with the Politbureau already preparing to fight for the succession. Yet there is no sense of tragedy; this was not a great talent gone astray, but a bullying mediocrity chosen by history to carry through a counter-revolution. There is one passage in Victor Serge’s magnificent Case of Comrade Tulayev where the author succeeds in making us feel sorry for Stalin, but Marie, for all his research, never achieves that feat.

At the end of all the loathsome detail, we are led to ask what purpose such a biography serves. When Marie published his first book on Stalin, it was still a work of some courage: the French Communist Party still revered Stalin and denied the validity of Khrushchev’s secret speech. Today those who still worship Stalin are so few in number that they will fit on Harpal Brar’s ‘Friends & Family’ application form.

It is true that many of the last century’s leading Marxists – Trotsky, Serge, Deutscher, Cliff, Broué – have used the biographical form to understand the Russian Revolution, precisely because the rôle of individuals was so crucial. But biography cannot answer all the key questions. Stalin’s brutalised childhood may explain his later brutality, but cannot explain how such a brute assumed total power in a so-called ‘workers’ state’. Today, the crucial problem is whether Leninism, or indeed the very fact of revolution, necessarily leads to dictatorship of the Stalinist type. And an account focusing on the individual personality of Stalin cannot provide an adequate response.

Stalin alone did not make Stalinism. Yet many of the other figures involved in the process remain relatively unknown. Marie writes of the rise of the ‘nomenklatura’, but most of them remain names behind which there is very little substance. To the best of my knowledge, there is no serious biography of Zinoviev. How much is known of Andrei Andreev, an old Bolshevik – described by Stalin as ‘an active Trotskyist in 1921’! (p. 511) – who became one of the chief agents of the purges of the 1930s? Why did Krupskaya, who initially stood up to Stalin, instead of gracefully retiring into obscurity, remain on the Central Committee until her death, voting for the expulsions which technically had to precede the arrest and execution of Central Committee members (see Getty and Naumov, The Road to Terror, Yale, 1999)?

Marie only touches on the social and economic context of Stalinism, and here his testimony is ambiguous. He insists that ‘planning’ coexisted with Stalin’s arbitrary rule, even claiming that it was the planned economy that ensured the defeat of Hitler (pp. 711–2) (rather than recognising that Germany was unlikely to triumph over the combined might of the USA, the USSR and the British Empire).

In fact, Marie shows us a blend of corruption, incompetence and terror which is a mockery of the very word ‘planning’. Even the purges were carried out according to the free market principle of competition between sections of the state apparatus for the most victims (p. 546). Terror undoubtedly increased the productivity of labour when sheer brute force was the main thing required; but it could not provide the innovation necessary for a more sophisticated industrial society. One does not invent the computer at gun point.

As Marie shows, far from being a higher stage of economic development, the Russian economy was dependent on its international competitors. Its scientists were required to imitate developments already made in the West, rather than pursue new ideas. Original scientific research was positively discouraged, while a massive and highly expensive espionage network was built up so that Western inventions could be copied (p. 725).

Stalinist ideology was a positive obstacle to progress. Stalin encouraged the absurd, unscientific theories of the charlatan Lysenko, even at the cost of many lives through famine (pp. 780–3). But at one point he pulled back. He originally wanted to denounce relativity and quantum physics as ‘bourgeois science’, but was firmly told that they were the basis of nuclear weapons (pp. 796–7). Even the old butcher himself could not resist the pressure of capitalist competition, mediated through the arms race.

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Last updated: 21 May 2021