Stalin: Triumph and Tragedy.

Stalin: Triumph and Tragedy by Dmitri Volkogonov

Book Review by Brendan Clifford

The author, a Red Army General, was put in charge of the Soviet Institute of Military History by Gorbachev in 1985. The book was written from an advanced Gorbachevite viewpoint, and with free access to the Soviet archives. The Russian edition was published three years ago. But it is already obsolete, and is of interest only as a historical curiosity.

It is obsolete because it presumes that the October Revolution and the Brest-Litovsk Treaty were good things. Its perspective is Leninist. The validity of Leninism is taken as axiomatic.

It was the much-criticised Stalin who laid it down as an axiom that Leninism was true. In practical politics at any given moment something must be taken as axiomatic. Not everything can be questioned all the time. Stalin drew a line under Leninism and said in so many words that its truth was to be taken as axiomatic and was not to be subjected to questioning within the Bolshevik order of things. And for thirty years remarkable things were done in the world in the medium of Leninist politics.

Leninism did not cease to be axiomatic truth in the Soviet state until that state began to fall apart in the aftermath of the coup last August. But although it remained the official medium of thought it had not since the death of Stalin been taken in earnest by Soviet officialdom. Things were done and said which made no sense m Leninist terms, and yet they were done and said in the name of Leninism.

When in the mid-sixties 1 began to do things in politics the reduction of Leninism to gibberish was far advanced both in the Kremlin and in the British Communist Party. For a few years I took part in what was called the “anti-revisionist movement”, and tried to restore effective political meaning to the language of Leninism. When I saw that the cause was hopeless I concluded that the Leninist line or development had aborted. That immediately brought into question the validity of the October Revolution and the Brest-Litovsk Treaty. Leninism is the October Revolution as modified by the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. In 1980 I published a long criticism of Lenin’s conduct over the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. I followed this with a review of Soviet Law. I took these articles to be a final settling of accounts with Leninism.

Much that I wrote around that time, being directed against Roy Medvedev and the Monty Johnstone tendency in the British CP, was popular with ‘hardline’ elements in the CP. It was a meaningless popularity and I never supposed anything would come of it. I assumed that ‘Eurocommunists’ and “Tankies’ would drift together towards oblivion conducting an argument which was of no consequence. And that is what they have done. And now the Soviet Party has followed them.

General Volkogonov’ s first criticism of Stalin has to do with his policy towards the Provisional Government when he was the Bolshevik leader to arrive on the spot .after the February Revolution:

“His first blunder was to permit the publication of 3!11 article by Kamenev called The Provisional Government And Revolutionary Social Democracy, in which the author plainly stated that the party must support the Provisional Government, as it was “genuinely struggling against the remnants of the old regime.” This was blatantly against Lenin’ s directives.

“The very next day, Kamenev … published another article .. .in which he virtually espoused the “revolutionary defencist” position … Kamenev’s semi-Menshevik views met no opposition from Stalin, who himself published an article the day after Kamenev’s appeared, called On the War. Despite its being in general anti-war, the article was nevertheless in complete contradiction to Lenin’ s views. Stalin saw the way out of the imperialist war as “putting pressure on the Provisional Government to announce its unwillingness to open peace talks at once.”

“To his credit…in 1924 Stalin publicly admitted his error …

“No doubt, Stalin could not guess that Lenin was going to proclaim a course for socialist revolution when he arrived in Petrograd a month later. He was too involved in the political manoeuvrings which he saw as an end in themselves …

“Stalin’s hesitation was understandable. He did not have his own conception of how the great idea was to be made real. February and October exposed his weakness, his shallow theoretical grounding, his low level of initiative, his inability (as yet) to convert a political slogan into a concrete programmatic proposition.” (p 19-20)

But then Lenin came to the Finland Station.

“And, at the station, Stalin felt Lenin’ s internationalism obliterating his own naive doubts and erroneous attitude to the Provisional Government.”

Stalin’s programme in March 1917 was that Bolshevism should become a party within the revolutionary democracy which sprang up after the collapse of Tsarism. Such a course of action might well have given substance to Russian democracy as a body politic. And that of course would have been a tragedy. Such at least was Trotsky’s opinion, and he regularly scourged Stalin over it. A decade before 1917 Trotsky had declared that the bourgeois democracy would be a brief interlude between the Tsarist dictatorship and the proletarian dictatorship. After Lenin’s return to Russia in April 1917 Stalin jettisoned his democratic programme and went along with Lenin’ s policy of ultra-democracy for the purpose of overthrowing democracy.

I have not been following Soviet publications closely for the past ten years or so. But to the best of my knowledge Volkogonov’s criticism of Stalin for adopting a democratic programme in March 1917 is the first criticism of that kind made by the Kremlin. I suppose it is logical that the Leninist regime at the end of its tether should be more sensitive in the matter of doubts about the necessity of its origins that it was when it felt secure.

But surely, in the light of what has happened since last August, Stalin’s mistake of 1917 has been reversed. It will be interesting to see if the next Russian history of the period says that Bolshevism was on the right lines in March 1917 when it was directed by Stalin, and that Stalin’s great mistake was to give way to Lenin’s metaphysical vision in April 1917.

Although the October Revolution opened up a chasm between the Soviet parties and the bourgeois Parliamentary parties it was not necessarily the end of democracy in Russia. The Soviets enacted the revolution in alliance with the Left Socialist Revolutionary Party and with the support or acquaintance of some Menshevik Tendencies. But for the Brest-Litovsk Treaty the Soviets might have developed as a more effective form of representative government than the Parliament was, and a nationalist democracy such as had never existed in Russia might have evolved. Lenin was determined that his scientific socialist vision should not be degraded into representative government. The Brest-Litovsk crisis enabled him to get rid of the SRs and construct a state according to his own design. And he did this against a majority on the Bolshevik Central Committee by saying that unless that majority let him have his way he would resign from the Government and pull the house down.

Stalin was one of those who gave way to Lenin over Brest-Litovsk with great reluctance. General Volkogonov says:

“Stalin was mostly passive over this issue, not because he disagreed with one side or the other, but rather because the question was too complicated for him to follow.” (p 36)

My impression when I went to the matter was that Stalin, having given up his own position a year earlier, was acutely aware that it was Lenin’s game that was being played, that Bukharin and Trotsky did not have either the will or the practical ability to take the revolution from Lenin and conduct it against him even though they had a majority against him on the Central Committee, and since Lenin could not be persuaded to wage a war of national defence and was determined to make a Treaty with Germany the only thing to be done was let him have his way. But I would say that Stalin – who did not tend to lose himself in rhetoric like Trotsky or in abstraction like Bukharin – appreciated the implications of Brest-Litovsk better than any of the others. And then having accepted them he knew that the only thing to do was draw a line under those events and he declared it an axiom that Lenin was right in all of these matters.

Existential doubt had no place in Lenin’ s revolution.

General Volkogonov puts it this way:

“the revolutionary romanticism of the left…broke on the reef of Lenin’s more sober pragmatism, and eventually managed to overcome his inner divisions and found the strength to follow Lenin to the end.”

Surely the criticism of Stalin now must be that he followed Lenin all too well and developed Lenin’ s fundamental mistakes into a catastrophe of gigantic proportions. Lenin’ s state would almost certainly have fallen apart in the ten years after his death if Bukharin, Trotsky, Zinoviev and Kamenev had had the running of it. None of them had any time for representative government, but as dictators . they were little more than fantasists.

Lenin’s “sober pragmatism” of March 1918, and the consequent suppression of the SRs, led to the formation of the monolithic state; the crusading state which remodelled society according to a theory, and which taught the dialectic as a form of belief while ensuring that it was itself located beyond the dialectic of actual political forces; the scientific socialist state. And it isolated this state from turmoil which began in central and Western Europe eight or nine months after the Brest-Litovsk Treaty.

In 1920 Lenin tried to break out of this isolation by making war on the new Polish state. His army was broken at Warsaw by Pilsudski, who in cavalier fashion had blended his Marxism with the elemental humanism of the Polish renaissance of the 19th century. Thereafter Bolshevism became an external manipulative influence on the politics of Western Europe.

Lenin’s “sober pragmatism” was neither sober nor pragmatic.

It would be pointless to dwell on the remaining 500 pages of General Volkogonov’s book. While they include much interesting detail, they attempt the impossible conceptual task of making a Leninist criticism of ‘Stalinism’. The standpoint of this attempted criticism, the “democratic potential which Lenin had begun to build”, is barely mentioned in the Forward and is never mentioned again. It is in fact one of those notions which can only exist if they are not thought about. The book as a whole is therefore a castle in the air.

Chapter 55 is entitled “A Historical Anomaly”. In it the General says:

“We may … speak of Stalinism as having grown in the soil of Marxism, and been nourished by twisting its arguments, but it does not follow that Marxism was responsible for Stalinism. As an intellectual system of philosophical, economic and political views of society, nature and thought, Marxism cannot be blamed for the way it has been interpreted.” (p 546)

I have often heard that said but I have never been able to figure out what it means. Many able intellects have read the books of Marx and have become Marxists, and I would assume that what on the whole they became had something to do with what was in the books. It is thirty-five years since Stalin was denounced by Khrushchev. If a politically functional variant of Marxism had been developed by the many thousands of people who pitted themselves against Stalinism, Stalinism would not have remained the central preoccupation of Marxists. But all the Marxists have done is mull over the notion that Leninism and Stalinism are very different things without being able to specify the difference.

Volkogonov says: “Stalinism took the primacy of the state and society to absurd limits.” (p 551) In fact he did no more than accept as axiomatic Lenin’ s sweeping assertion of the primacy of the state. As I recall this was done in his comment on Sukhanov in 1922. The Mensheviks pointed out that Lenin’ s socialist state was without either the economic or cultural preconditions which Marxists had assumed to be the necessary basis of socialism. Lenin asked where it was written that the socialist state could come first and then create its cultural and economic preconditions. And I don’t see how Stalin could conceivably have gone beyond that limitless primacy of the state over society.

Lenin asserted an absolute voluntarism of the state and none of the Marxist tendencies of the past thirty years has dared to question that fundamental of Leninism.

The major intellectual force in Western Marxism since the death of Stalin was Louis Althusser. Twenty years ago all the major Marxist tendencies in Britain hailed Althusser as a master. The Althusserians were so Leninist that they regarded Stalinism as a form of slipshod philosophical humanism. It was they who dehydrated Marxism of whatever human spirit remained in it and brought it to such brittle perfection that all it could do next was crumble. Because I flirted with Locke, Burke, Rousseau, Kant, Dostoevsky and others the Althusserians told me I wasn’t a Marxist at all but a vulgar empiricist. And I thought the sensible thing to do was accept their verdict.

Volkogonov has an interesting little chapter on “Stalin’ s Mind”: “Stalin’s way of thinking was schematic”, he says (p 230) and therefore “his works were popular, since they were accessible in their simplicity and people could grasp their meaning.” But this “severely shackled the people’s creative abilities, demanding no deep analysis or understanding of the complexity and interdependence of the world.”

This appears to say that understanding and creativity are mutually exclusive. (And I seem to remember something of that kind in Hegel’s Logic, though of course stated more conditionally.) But surely if the state is to remake society, as Lenin decreed, the people must get some definite ideas whose meaning they can grasp. The process can hardly go on entirely outside their heads in the tortuous creative paragraphs of the philosophers, Stalin made sense of Leninism at the level of understanding for the millions of people who were willing to be remoulded but were incapable of being remoulded without comprehensible explanations. And even though an excess of understanding may retard ‘creativity’, it is also a precondition of creativity. And in my experience 99.999% of ‘creativity’ creates nothing out of nothing – which is what creative Marxism has done this past thirty years.

Volkogonov concedes in a dismissive sort of way that Stalin provided the understanding which was needed for the realisation of Lenin’ s project of development in reverse order: “Similar ideological fodder, as dogmatic and anti-historical as the Short Course led to spiritual pauperization and intellectual primitivism. Stalin was preparing the soil for rearing a broad spectrum of people who thought in elementary terms, people who would provide a constant supply of careerists, informers, time-servers and mindless functionaries for his system …

“The intellectual energy in the Short Course was sufficient for more than a decade. Before the war it dominated the public mind not only because the propagandists made good use of it, but also because millions of people … seemed to find in it a pre-digested and accessible outline of an entire epoch.” (p 553)

In this passage the same theory is described twice, and the two descriptions are jumbled together in a way that short circuits the process of thought. The Short Course [In the History of the CPSVP] is first described as if it had been imposed by the state on a vigorous civil society with many sources of political culture, and had therefore led to spiritual pauperisation. Then it is referred to in its actual social context ·as supplying intellectual energy sufficient for more than a decade.

If anything is implied by the passage as a whole it is that a better book than the Short Course might have served as a manual of elementary thought for millions of people and at the same time have engendered a liberal public opinion of the kind produced in a few European societies as the outcome of a few centuries of intricate social conflict, (and certainly not by government policy). And that is absurd.

Lenin intentionally established a state-oriented society. It was the business of that state to provide its society with the means of thought. Khrushchev, Brezhnev and Gorbachev failed to provide their generations with the means of thought. The Short Course served the thirties and forties, but it had no functional replacement in the sixties, seventies and eighties. Therefore the state collapsed. Soviet society under Stalin may have had only elemental forms of thought. But elemental forms of thought are necessary, and even in the most sophisticated society most thought remains elemental. And under Gorbachev Soviet Society lost even the most rudimentary forms of general thought required by the Leninist relationship of society and the state.

Volkogonov tells how Stalin went to school in the mid-twenties. He was “intellectually incapable of achieving even the slightest grasp” of philosophy, and especially of dialectics: “He was aware of this, for he spent a long time and devoted much effort to trying to enrich his philosophical knowledge. On the recommendation of the directors of the Institute of Red Professors, in 1925, he invited Jan Sten, a leading philosopher among the Old Bolsheviks, to give him private lessons in the dialectic. Sten … devised a special programme which included the study of Hegel, Kant, Feuerbach, Fichte, and Schelling, as well as Plekhanov, Kautsky and Bradley. Twice a week at a fixed hour he turned up at Stalin’s apartment and patiently tried to elucidate to his pupil the Hegelian concepts of substantiation, alienation, the identity of being and thought. He tried in other words to give him an understanding of the real world as the manifestation of an idea. Abstraction irritated Stalin but he controlled himself and sat listening to Sten’s monotonous voice, occasionally losing patience with such questions as, “What’s all this got to do with the class struggle?” or “Who uses this rubbish in practice?” (p 230)

Twenty-five years ago I found out all I could about the Institute of Red Professors. As I recall they spent some years thinking great thoughts to no purpose, and wondering what use they were, when Stalin took them in hand. He used the Institute as his research department to find out things that might be useful to him in the factional conflicts of the mid-twenties. The professors, given something to do that had a discernible connection with the great revolutionary turmoil going on outside the Institute became happy. And now it turns out that Stalin was at the same time trying to learn philosophy.

Philosophy is a guide to action. The point of interpreting the world is to change it. There was general agreement on that score. But Stalin did not go to the Red Professors to learn how to change the world, about which in any case they hadn’t a clue. It seems that at one and the same moment he was using the Red Professors as office staff in the business of changing the world and was trying to learn philosophy from them. Perhaps Dostoevsky would have been able to give that joke the artistic treatment it merits.

I have encountered a fair number of people who studied philosophy in the Marxist spirit in order to discover the secret of how to change the world and who were disabled for politics in the process. If the Red Professors had succeeded in communicating their philosophic spirit to Stalin, Problems of Leninism and the Short Course would never have been written and the Leninist departure would have run out of momentum about sixty years ago. The philosophers might then have boasted that philosophy had at last changed the world – except that something which is prevented from happening doesn’t count.

This article appeared in March 1992, in Issue 28 of Labour and Trade Union Review, now Labour Affairs.  You can find more from the era at