Stalin from the Left

Szamuely

August 16, 2022


We have all heard the tired lines about how Stalin was a “brutal dictator” who “killed millions.” True or not, such moralizing resolves nothing for Marxists. After all any neo-Confederate worth their salt would say much the same of Lincoln and with some justification. In the current political climate, it is the height of fashion to denounce anyone whose career Hegel would have identified as a moment of the “history of freedom” in the same hysterical terms. If Western left identitarians see the American founders as no more than genocidal rapists and Russian national conservatives find Napoleon a precursor of Hitler, we can hardly be surprised to find Stalin vilified in the most hyperbolic terms by other enthusiasts of the destruction of reason.


In their turn, these shrill accusations are countered by often ludicrous apologists who insist that Stalin was a great democrat and rumors of his crimes are greatly exaggerated. Ultimately, this debate will continue endlessly, occupying time and energy without clarifying anything essential. If we want to understand what forces Stalin represented and what role he played in the struggles of his own time as a key to grasping what he means to us today, we must depart for another terrain of inquiry altogether.


It’s the Economy Stupid


As Marxists, we understand that politics are the concentration of economics and that we will always be the victims of deception and self-deception in politics until we train ourselves to see behind every political trend the interests of classes occupying determinate positions within the economic process. Therefore, to understand Stalin or anyone else we must attempt an analysis, not of their conformity to humanitarian pieties (after all no politician of any significance could pass such an exam), but an evaluation of which production relations they seek to implement and impose.


Stalin’s ascent to power is conditioned by the unresolved contradictions of the Soviet state. After the “heroic period” of War Communism, when a struggle for bare survival was mixed with an abortive effort to leap immediately into socialist production relations, the Bolsheviks were forced to recognize the unfavorable relations of force with a provisional acceptance of commodity production under the proletarian dictatorship in the form of the New Economic Policy. A worker minority became isolated in a peasant-majority country in vast areas of which even the anti-feudal revolution was yet to be completed. It had few alternatives.


The question at hand was how to advance the revolutionary process to the next stage. Bukharin, Stalin, and the Right were willing to renounce not only the further advance towards socialist production relations but even the rapid development of heavy industry required to independently assert the Soviet Union against imperialism while insisting that their developmentalism was the construction of socialism. Trotsky and the Left Opposition saw the need for the rapid development of heavy industry but also recognized that the completion of the construction of socialism could only occur on a world scale. The way to the full realization of socialism would only be opened by the overthrow of imperialism in the core of capitalism. As the 1920s proceeded, facing both the unraveling of the fragile balance established by the New Economic Policy and the political threat of the Left Opposition, Stalin with his trademark opportunism made a wild left turn. Socialism would not only be built in a single country but on the tightest possible schedule. It was not simply a question of accelerating industrialization to the maximum extent possible within the constraints of the New Economic Policy but of realizing all the deferred dreams of October within the borders of a single state.


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