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John G. Wright

A Biography of Stalin

(July 1946)

From Fourth International, Vol.7 No.7, July 1946, pp.210-213.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

STALIN, An Appraisal of the Man and His Influence
by Leon Trotsky
Harper & Bros. New York. 516+xv pp. $5.00.

No other contemporary biography has assumed such political significance as Leon Trotsky’s biography of Stalin. For years it has been the source of international intrigue and struggle.

The Kremlin dictator had determined to murder the author long before the latter began working on this book in 1938. In each of the Moscow frame-up trials Leon Trotsky and his son Leon Sedov had figured as the main defendants and had been condemned in absentia. Stalin’s handpicked judges passed the death sentence; its execution was entrusted to his even more carefully selected assassins who redoubled their efforts when news came of the projected biography.

In May 1940, Trotsky’s home in Coyoacan, a suburb of Mexico City, was assaulted at night by a machine gun squad led by the Mexican painter Siqueiros. Failure attended this attempt to kill Trotsky and simultaneously to destroy his archives and manuscript by means of incendiary bombs. A few months later, on August 20, 1940, another hired assassin of Stalin did finally succeed in striking Trotsky down while the latter was at work on the manuscript.

Although the book was not completed, the text was in a form readily suitable for publication. Nevertheless the publication was deliberately delayed. After it came off the press in 1941, Harper and Brothers withdrew it, recalling even the review copies. It is no secret that this action was taken at the behest of the US State Department, which accorded many other similar diplomatic favors to the Kremlin during the war-time alliance.

Political motives underlie its release today to the public just as was the case in its suppression five years earlier. With the sharp worsening of relations between Washington and Moscow, the propagandists of American imperialism hope to use the crimes of Stalin in order to besmirch the October Revolution and further turn public opinion against the Soviet Union. But they will be sadly disappointed. None of Trotsky’s writings have ever served the ends of imperialist reaction, but on the contrary have unfailingly dealt the latter the heaviest blows.

Superficial observers and philistines have from the first tried to belittle the struggle between Stalin and Trotsky as a personal duel for power. In reality it was throughout an implacable conflict of two diametrically opposed systems of ideas: the ideas of progress and proletarian revolution versus those of reaction and counter-revolution.

In his 1937 summary speech before the Dewey Commission of Inquiry into the Moscow Trials, Trotsky explained as follows the respective roles of the two main protagonists in this struggle:

Neither Stalin nor I find ourselves in our present positions by accident. But we did not create these positions. Each of us is drawn into his drama as the representative of definite ideas and principles. In their turn, the ideas and principles did not fall from the sky, but have profound social roots. That is why one must take, not the psychological abstraction of Stalin as a “man,” but his concrete, historical personality as leader of the Soviet bureaucracy. One can understand the acts of Stalin only by starting from the conditions of existence of the new privileged stratum, greedy for material comforts, apprehensive for its positions, fearing the masses, and mortally hating all opposition.

These lines provide at the same time the criteria that guided Trotsky in writing Stalin. Prominent individuals in history, their role and character, can be correctly understood and analyzed primarily in terms of the social forces they serve, and, in the final analysis, personify. Trotsky, the foremost, most authoritative exponent and continuator of orthodox Marxism, rejected as false any other approach.

It is indeed impossible to comprehend Stalin’s role, particularly his meteoric rise to power, without understanding the exceptional and unrepeatable combination of historical factors that cleared the path for the future dictator.

As a politician Stalin belongs to a type by no means uncommon: Men of action, organically inclined toward adventurism and careerism. The most highly developed traits in such individuals are: An insatiable craving for power, strong will, perseverance and cunning coupled with a complete disregard for ideas, principles and loyalties.

These qualifications have sufficed for many a political career. But as a rule such individuals attain only subordinate positions except during periods which give rise, so to speak, to an unlimited social demand for political gangsterism. This demand arises during breaking-points in the historical process, periods of great historical transitions when rival social systems – the one outlived, the other about to be born – are engaged in mortal combat. The breed of political thugs becomes especially prolific in these periods of transition. This was the case, for example, during the transition from feudalism to capitalism (in particular, as Trotsky points out, the Renaissance era). We witness the same phenomenon in the epoch of the death agony of capitalism.

But even during transitional periods, political adventurers and thugs require additional qualifications to attain topflight prominence, namely: they must qualify as mass leaders. Here we touch one of the peculiarities in Stalin’s rise to power. While he belongs, generally speaking, to the same political type as Mussolini or Hitler, Stalin lacks a number of their unquestionable gifts, being neither an initiator of a mass movement, nor a talented agitator. As a matter of fact, Stalin’s most deeply rooted personal traits – “distrust of the masses, utter lack of imagination, short-sightedness, an inclination to follow the line of least resistance” – are precisely those which disqualify him for the role of mass leader. His rise, therefore, as Trotsky correctly points out, “is not comparable with anything in the past.” It is unique.

Its secret lies in the difference between the social base on which the reaction led by Stalin unfolded and the social base of the reactionary movements headed by Mussolini and Hitler. It was this that enabled Stalin to rise to 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.” The very traits in Stalin’s personality that rendered him unfit to lead the masses transformed him into an ideal leader of the rising counter-revolutionary Soviet bureaucracy.

The metamorphosis occurred not in full public view but behind the scenes: nor did it take place at a single stroke but in a number of stages over a period of years.

The pre-history of the Kremlin dictator is shrouded in deepest secrecy. Concurrently there is almost a quarter of a century’s encrustation of distortions and falsifications without parallel. Most of the material- – original and counterfeit alike – remained in the Soviet Union, either in the Kremlin’s vaults or long ago destroyed. Compelled to work abroad, in exile, Trotsky was obviously limited both with regard to his source material and his available staff of collaborators. For this reason he had to rely on his memory as eyewitness and participant in the decisive events, a course which he eschewed in his other historical writings.

This should not be taken to mean, however, that Stalin is based in part or as a whole on reminiscences. On the contrary, few contemporary biographies can match it in point of thoroughness, variety and richness of documentation. Let us note in passing that in this case as in all others, not one anti-Trotskyist reviewer has been able to refute a single reference or point to an instance of misuse of source material by Trotsky.

In marked contrast to the conditions under which this work was written is its great objectivity. We have here an almost detached view of a great mind analyzing step by step the process whereby human clay, not unmixed with dross, became converted into a prodigious idol – the idol in the Kremlin.

Joseph Djugashvilli – the future Stalin – was the son of a peasant shoemaker from Didi-Lilo, a little village in the Caucasus. The child’s earliest years were poisoned with hatred of his drunken, shiftless, despotic father; the predominant childhood influence was the young peasant mother who dreamed of her son’s rising in the world as a priest. This traditional aspiration of poor peasants, brought the adolescent Djugashvilli under the sway of petty clerical despots of the Tiflis theological seminary. Family and school instilled in the future dictator hatred of all authority. He rebelled.

His rebellion flowed initially into nationalist channels, a progressive development for a member of an oppressed nationality. The young theological student was thereupon swiftly caught up by the powerful revolutionary undertow in Czarist Russia, where not only anti-feudal but also anti-capitalist moods and ideas prevailed among the intellectual circles. The industrialization of a backward country and the rapid rise of a young proletariat created very fertile soil for the spread of Marxist ideas .which penetrated the bleak seminary walls many years before Joseph Djugashvilli enrolled there. That he accepted these ideas is evidenced by the severance of his connections with the seminary and his entry into the revolutionary movement. It is highly dubious, however, that he began as a Bolshevik, as the latter-day mythology claims. Early Czarist police records list him as a Menshevik. On such questions Czarist spies seldom erred.

In any case, there is no doubt whatever that Bolshevism attracted him and that he remained connected with Lenin’s party after once joining it. But what attracted him was not so much the consistency, Marxist orthodoxy and political intransigence of Bolshevism as the effectiveness and power of its organizational structure and methods.

This youth, even as a revolutionist, placed supreme confidence not in the masses but only in the machine. He lays bare his soul in one of his early appeals, broadcast in the province of Georgia during the 1905 revolution. The appeal concludes as follows:

Let us hold out our hands to each other and rally around our Party’s committees. We must not forget even for a minute that only the Party committees can worthily lead us, only they will light the way to the Promised Land ...

Committees remained his native element to the end.

Hatred and envy of the powerful turned Stalin into a revolutionist. He accepted the ideas of Bolshevism but never learned to feel them. They remained a sort of implantation, never penetrating into his blood and marrow. He could no more be in harmony with them than with the masses whose age-long struggles, aspirations and hopes these ideas, in the last analysis, express.

Trotsky demonstrates irrefutably that each time the masses entered the political arena, this provincial committeeman found himself completely out of his element, incapable of orientation, uneasy, unsure, groping blindly and straying time and again politically into the camp of the ideological opponents of Bolshevism. Concurrently, he found himself shunted aside not only by individuals of greater stature but also those with far lesser abilities.

Conversely, periods of reaction, when the masses ceased to lead political lives, became the major signposts in his career. During these periods he advanced most rapidly, landing finally in 1912 on the top Party committee. The specific weight of a political machine grows in proportion with the weakening of the mass movement. Trotsky demonstrates how closely Stalin’s career parallels the operation of this political law, until it finally propelled him to undreamed-of heights.

For Stalin to rise to undisputed power two conditions had to be fulfilled: first, the revolutionist in him had to be killed; second, he had to destroy Lenin’s party. This is precisely what happened.

Trotsky writes:

If Stalin could have foreseen at the very beginning where his fight against Trotskyism would lead, he undoubtedly would have stopped short, in spite of the prospect of victory over all his opponents. But he did not foresee anything.

Trotsky said virtually the same thing at the very beginning of the struggle against Stalinism in 1923.

The social base of the counter-revolution in the Soviet Union dictated that it be led by an individual with a reputation of an old revolutionist. Stalin possessed this deserved reputation. But his personal shortcomings prevented him from ever playing a leading role in Lenin’s lifetime. This deficiency had to be remedied at all costs.

Hence a new biography was supplied by an army of liars and counterfeiters. According to these forged credentials Stalin appears as the co-builder of the Bolshevik Party, Lenin’s right hand man in the period of October, chief figure in the Civil War, savior of Petrograd and Tsaritsin (renamed Stalingrad after Lenin died), etc., etc.

Trotsky demolishes this monolithic lie by restoring some of the salient historical facts. (To restore all would have required a score of volumes.) To cite a few:

Stalin played a dismal role during the 1917 revolution. Together with Kamenev he flirted with the Conciliators, advocated unity with the Mensheviks, supported the Provisional Government. He reoriented himself with difficulty only after Lenin’s arrival in Petrograd.

He played no important part whatever in the Petrograd insurrection, for which he himself once gave the credit to Trotsky.

His record during the Civil War was likewise less than heroic. His fraudulent claim to having “saved” Petrograd rests on the flimsy coincidence that he happened to be in that city in May 1919 when Yudenich launched his first sally with negligible forces and was easily repelled. The real threat to Petrograd came in October of the same year, when Yudenich attacked, for the second time, in force and was repelled. This event is connected with the name of Trotsky and not of Stalin who was hundreds of miles away at the time.

Similarly the “epic” of Tsaritsin will hardly withstand close scrutiny. Stalin did spend several months there in 1918 while on a mission to secure badly-needed food-stuffs (which he failed to obtain); his military activities were of such a nature that he had to be removed (on the categorical insistence of Trotsky).

Stalin’s chief operations during the Civil War consisted of behind-the-scenes intrigues, with the aim of inciting the so-called Military Opposition (proponents of guerrilla armies and guerrilla warfare) against Trotsky’s program of systematically building the Red Army and utilizing the former Czarist officers.

The number of similar facts and episodes can be extended almost indefinitely.

Stalin’s Rise to Prominence

Stalin’s rise to prominence began in 1923 when Lenin lay on his deathbed. Trotsky adduces weighty evidence in support of his conclusion that Lenin was given poison by Stalin. The latter moreover, had ample motives for so doing: Lenin had broken all personal relations with him, and was preparing to crush him politically.

Despite the somber and sometimes sinister subject, the biography is by no means wholly negative. Its main setting is the background of the development of the Russian revolution. Entire sections of the book are devoted to an exposition of the different phases through which the revolutionary movement passed. Among the invaluable material there is data, most of it available for the first time in English, relating to the history of the Bolshevik Party, the period of the October Revolution, the Civil War, the building of the Red Army, etc. Throughout the book, Trotsky gives brilliant and intimate sketches of many outstanding personalities in the Bolshevik movement, Lenin’s collaborators and disciples.

Even the fragmentary sections in the supplement (The Thermidorian Reaction and Kinto in Power) will greatly aid the reader who is interested in understanding the social process and moods that accompanied the initial phases of the degeneration of the Soviet Union.

Contained in the appendix is an exceptionally important theoretical document, The Three Concepts of the Russian Revolution. It is Trotsky’s definitive exposition of the differences between the views of Bolshevism and Menshevism on the development of the Russian Revolution and his own points of agreement and disagreement with Lenin on this question. Involved here is the application of the famous theory of the permanent revolution to the peculiar Russian conditions. Trotsky originally intended to include it in his work on Lenin which he began during his exile in Norway but was never able to complete.

It is necessary to briefly comment in passing on the scandalous conduct of Charles Malamuth who figures as “editor” of the book. He had been hired solely as translator of the book. Instead of preparing the uncompleted text for publication as the author had left it, he arbitrarily proceeded to interpolate passages directly counter to Trotsky’s own ideas, among them the cynical contention that Stalinism is the inevitable outcome of Bolshevism. It goes without saying that one of the main objects of the author was to demonstrate just the contrary.

The reviews accorded this book by the bourgeois press were without exception hostile. The favorite method was to belittle it as “intensely personal.” To be sure not a single one of these impartial gentlemen bothered to adduce an instance of Trotsky’s alleged subjectivity, let alone challenge any of the factual material in the book.

Trotsky, of course, is not passionless. His book is one of the most annihilating indictments in history of an individual. It is at the same time an impassioned defense of the struggle for socialism.

Although the author is dead, Wall Street and all its apologists still fear his fundamental ideas. They are afraid, because in this book as in all his writings, Trotsky presents his analysis of the crisis in the world today and points to the revolutionary way out for the masses. They are afraid of the bright light this book sheds on the building of the revolutionary party.

What makes these creatures recoil in horror should attract every serious worker and youth interested in revolutionary socialist ideas.

This book will take its place among the great Marxist classics not simply as a brilliant biography but as a powerful weapon in the struggle for the communist future of man.

Last updated: 29.12.2005