Misunderstanding Stalin

Memories of Stalin

By Gwydion M. Williams

ITV recently had a big documentary about Joseph Stalin. It followed the normal line attributing everything to his personality, and almost nothing to the nature of the Russian Empire or the events in the rest of the world during the 1920s and 1930s.

Lenin took power in 1917, convinced that capitalism was close to break-up. He was able to take power because he struck a chord with the mass of the population in the disintegrating Russian Empire. They knew that capitalism was something that had been imposed on them· by foreigners, and by a ruling class that prided itself on copying foreign ways. But a strictly reactionary development didn’t seem either likely or desirable. They were too westernised to wish for a return to old Russian ways, but also different enough to wish for something of their very own.

Schemes for world revolution failed to come off – but what was the alternative? Not a lot of people wanted democratic capitalism, and anyway there was good reason in the 1920s and 1930s to think that the epoch of democratic capitalism was over. ‘Socialism or Barbarism’ seemed the real choice. Rather, what developed was a ‘barbarous socialism’ that was never the less seen as the main hope of a darkening world. And it was an unlikely alliance of democratic capitalism and barbarous socialism that broke the power of Fascism.

Up until the early 1970s, the two rival world systems seemed to be very much equal competitors. But there ..was a crucial difference. In the West, the ruling elite has taken account of the social upheaval of the 1960s, and allowed greater openness and restructuring. In Eastern Europe and the USSR, nothing was allowed to change. In China, Mao tried to use the energies of the young to revitalise the revolution. This was a gamble for high stakes, and had it come off the world today would be a very different place. Sadly, he failed, producing chaos and leaving socialist idealism badly undermined.

As we enter the 1990s, world capitalism has done many of the things that socialists were demanding it do, or were assuming that it could not do. But socialism as a political movement is back to about its 1920s level of strength. What was built up over three decades, by Stalin in Russia and by Bevin and Attlee in Britain, was frittered away and lost over the next four decades.

I am not suggesting that what Stalin did should ever be repeated. I do say that he was successful, and that the failures were those of his successors.

[This is from Newsnotes for May 1990.]