Stalin's bloody rise to power

Submitted by martin on 26 February, 2013 - 12:43

This article by US Trotskyist Albert Glotzer (taken from Labor Action 16 March 1953) was written to mark the death of Joseph Stalin sixty years ago (5 March 1953). Glotzer had been court reported at the 1937 John Dewey Commission, called to hear trumped-up charges by Stalin against Trotsky.

The unwarrantedly peaceful death of Joseph Stalin has unloosed a flood of quickie biography, much of which seems to follow the genteel maxim, "Speak not ill of the dead." But it is more important that we speak the truth—the truth about the man who, from a relatively obscure role among the militants of the Russian Revolution, "rose" to be their executioner and the hangman of the counter-revolution.

In the pre-revolution days of the struggling Bolshevik party, he became known to the party leadership as an indefatigable party worker, who could be relied on in the dark days of tsarist persecution when all revolutionary democratic and socialist groups were periodically driven underground. He was one of the "practicals," a man from the provinces.

He could lay no claim to any significant intellectual achievements. He was without special learning; he was not a writer or a speaker; and this in an organisation which contained perhaps the most outstanding group of leaders ever seen in any political party, socialist or otherwise.

There were not only Lenin and Trotsky, two who stood far out in sheer intellectual ability and attainment; not too far behind them was a considerably larger group of remarkably able men with talents in a wide variety of fields, especially social, political and economic theory - outstanding socialist internationalists. We need only mention Bukharin, Zinoviev, Kamenev, Rakovsky, Piatakov, Preobrazhensky, Riazanov, Serebryakov. Sokolnikov, among many others.

In an analytical paragraph of his brilliant biography of Stalin. Trotsky wrote:

"It may be said that all of the historical men of genius, all the creators, all the initiators, said the essence of what they had to say during the first 25 or 30 years of their life. Later came only the development, the deepening and the application. During the first period of Stalin's life we hear nothing but vulgarized reiteration of ready-made formulae."

In all those years of struggle, of seemingly never-ending factional conflicts within the party between the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks, Stalin continued to remain the unknown except, as we have said, to the central leadership of the party, more to Lenin than to anyone else. He was one of the many qualified provincial leaders. He had little or no contact with the brilliant exile leadership, and in fact looked with scorn upon these men who spoke many languages, engaged in theoretical activity and wrote much,

In those early years before the First World War he already nurtured his hatred for intellectuals and intellectual achievement, and developed those attributes of his character which we have come to know as extreme envy, respect for physical power, slyness, abuse, vulgarity and revenge upon opponents.

Before 1917, there were many party workers who like Stalin, were in the secondary leadership, some with greater talent than his, some with less. Their experiences were similar. They functioned in the organisations of the party below the Central Committee; they were often arrested and many times exiled to Siberia. Some escaped, while others were liberated by the First World War. Some left the movement in its darkest days, while others, like Stalin, went through periods of inactivity.

It was while he was in exile that Stalin exhibited that cunning patience for which he became noted in the years when he was reaching out for complete power. All reminiscences of his comrades-in-exile or in jail describe his anti-social behaviour, intrigue and isolation from his comrades. He was an envious, resentful and bitter person. As a result most comrades shied away from him and left him in peace.

In 1912, Stalin worked on the editorial board of Pravda in Petersburg, at the time when the whole staff was hostile to the policies of the Central Committee, which then resided abroad under Lenin's leadership. The Central Committee sent Yakov Sverdlov, who became the first president of the Soviet Republic, to Petersburg to correct the ambiguity created by an editorial staff in Opposition to the Central Committee.

Part of that correction was Stalin's first extended trip abroad. He went to Cracow to see Lenin. The visit coincided with a meeting of the Central Committee in December 1912, and January, 1913. Stalin remained in the country for two months thereafter and it was while he remained with Lenin that he wrote his Marxism and the National Question.

Historians have wondered why the man had never written anything previous to 1913, or subsequently, that compared with this acceptable Marxist work on the national question. The answer would obviously seem to be Lenin's presence, his tutelage and assistance. For this was to be the first and last important literary work by Stalin until he became the general secretary of the party in 1922, or more precisely, until he was part of the triumvirate with Zinoviev and Kamenev in the struggle against Trotsky and the Left Opposition.

He then issued his infamous book Leninism, a collection of dry-as-dust platitudes and revisions of Marxism and socialism, which became one of the bibles of Stalinism.

Little more is heard of Stalin until after the Russian Revolution, when the Bolsheviks were in power. He was not inactive in the revolutionary days, to be sere, but it was in a subordinate capacity, and mostly, during the civil war, in the Kazan province of the country.

Before Lenin arrived in Russia after the March revolution, Stalin was one of the editors of Pravda who called for support to the Provisional Government in apposition to party policy. As on other occasions, this "old Bolshevik" found himself In company with the Mensheviki. At the famous April Conference in 1917, at which Lenin proposed a complete revision of the course pursued by the party in Russia, Stalin fell into silence. He was so closely identified with the false policy of Pravda that he preferred to remain anonymous at the conference.

The history of the events of 1917 recorded the activities of all the important figures, bourgeois, Social-Revolutionary, Menshevik and Bolshevik. The great names of the revolution were widely known. But Stalin's name rarely appears. One need only read a list of the men whom Stalin had purged and assassinated to learn who the leaders of the revolution were.

Stalin became commissar of nationalities in the new government. Although it was an important post, his work was undistinguished. Undistinguished? Nay, it was distinguished for the rude Great-Russian policy which emerged from his direction—the Georgian-become-Great-Russian-nationalist. It was necessary to sever his connection with this important field of work.

The great turning point in Stalin's career occurred in 1922, when, ironically enough, he was proposed as the general secretary of the party by Zinoviev, an act which the latter undoubtedly regretted to the very day when a GPU pistol was fired into the base of his skull.

No great importance was attached to the post then. For the most part, It had been primarily an administrative-technical post, important in itself, but completely subordinate to the Political Committee of the party. Then began that subtle, unrelenting drive by this modern Genghis Khan (as Bukharin later called him) to make the post the most powerful one in the party.

Shortly after this appointment, Lenin became gravely ill. As a result of this illness he was unable to function as the active leader of the government and the party. It was in this period that Stalin began to reach out for control of the party. In a Party whose revolutionary élan was high and whose authentic leadership thought in quite other terms than that of inner-party intrigue, it came as a surprise that Stalin had unostentatiously filled hundreds and thousands of posts with the "apparatus men," that large layer of bureaucratic elements to whom the revolution had been the means to "success." They were Stalin's appointees.

The old comradeship, the old system of elective posts, the essential ideological unity of the party, was shaken by the new bureaucratic rule. This rule was accompanied by rudeness, physical assaults upon opponents, and a veritable reign of terror against all protestants.

The adoption of a false, but temporary, measure at the 10th Party Congress in 1921, which barred factions and factional dispute in the party because of the dire threat of the counter-revolution in. the midst of civil war and the severe economic hardships that prevailed, became a lever for Stalin's seizure of control of the party apparatus. In the name of unity, and the above-mentioned statute outlawing factions, all opponents were hounded, and driven from their posts and authority. Stalin was creating the monolithic party.

He was aided by both Zinoviev and Kamenev, to their everlasting shame. Bukharin, Rykov and Tomsky allied themselves with Stalin. They joined hands to destroy the power and influence of Leon Trotsky.

In his brief recovery in 1923, Lenin became aware of the vast change that had taken place in the organisation and in the state apparatus as well. He was greatly alarmed by the rise of the new bureaucracy, by the manner in which Stalin and his host of apparatus men had triumphed over the party and ruled it in the most brazen and cynical manner.

Lenin then dictated his famous "testament" which called for the removal of Stalin from his post as general secretary of the party. The testament contained two parts, the first dealing with the danger of a split in the party in the conflict which impended between Trotsky and Stalin. He criticized Trotsky, whom he regarded as "the most brilliant and able man in the present Central Committee," for his "too far-reaching self-confidence and a disposition to be too much attracted by the purely administrative side of affairs."

Of Stalin he said, he "has concentrated an enormous power in his hands; and I am not sure that he always knows how to use that power with sufficient caution."

Finally when all his efforts to halt Stalin's stranglehold on the party apparatus had failed, he wrote a postscript to the above testament saying:

"Stalin is too rude, and this fault, entirely supportable in relations among us Communists, becomes insupportable in the office of general secretary. Therefore, I propose to the comrades to find a way to remove Stalin from that position and appoint to it another who in all respects differs from Stalin only in superiority—namely, more patient, more loyal, more polite and more attentive to comrades, less capricious, etc.".

But it was already too late. With Lenin incapacitated and Trotsky ill, Stalin was able, with the assistance of Zinoviev, Kamenev, Bukharin, Rykov and Tomsky, to dominate the party. The 12th Party Congress was filled with hand-picked delegates.

This was to become the rule. Elections were swiftly becoming a thing of the past. Within a few short years, party congresses would become a grim, bureaucratic joke. Once the most democratic deliberative centres of the Bolshevik Party, they were destined to occur less and less frequently and then to meet purely as a rubber-stamp to all decisions taken by Stalin.

When Trotsky published his Lessons of October in 1924, all the pretences of the Stalin-Zinoviev-Kamenev triumvirate about unity and peace with the party were dropped. Then came the great "Struggle Against Trotskyism" in the demagogic name of Lenin and party unity. It ushered in a new kind of inner-party life.

Once the party was the great arena of ideological dispute and factional contention. Free discussions allowed for the development of ideas, the exchange of conflicting viewpoints and the possibility of honest conflict with the prospect of influencing one another in debate. This was now ended. A reign of terror was unleashed in the party, in the trade unions and in the Soviets.

The groundwork for Stalin's dictatorship was laid in the years of 1924, 1925 and 1926. The unrelenting drive of Stalin for personal power after the death of Lenin caused a break-up of his alliance with Zinoviev and Kamenev. They belatedly joined forces with Trotsky and the Left Opposition in a bloc aimed at halting Stalin's domination.

It was already too late. Stalin was striking out against the Left, against those forces in the party who called for a vast industrialisation of the country, for a collectivisation of agriculture, for a genuine internationalist socialist policy abroad.

The struggle produced a reactionary, nationalist assault upon the Left. Stalin introduced his reactionary, nationalist theory of building "socialism in one country," and railed against "foreign adventures." The reaction and relapse after the heroic revolutionary days was in his favour. The weary masses remained quiescent in this conflict. The party apparatus, the vast bureaucracy, pushed Stalin forward in its name, for "peace" and for their kind of reconstruction.

In the ensuing struggle, Zinoviev and Kamenev, who had gone into opposition, capitulated; but Trotsky and the Left Opposition continued the fight. This struggle has nothing in common with the present much speculated-about clique fights in the top hierarchy of the Stalinist regime today. Then what was at stake was revolution and counter-revolution, and it was irreconcilable social forces that were at war.

For its principled stand Trotsky's opposition suffered expulsion, arrest, imprisonment, and exile. Later the same fate awaited Stalin's allies of the "Right," Bukharin, Rykov and Tomsky. Stalin extended his monolithic control to the Communist International and its Communist Parties, converting these into docile tools of the Russian bureaucracy. '

This was the victory of the counter-revolution in Russia. It marked the end of the socialist revolution and the beginning of a new kind of state and society, so imperceptible in those years, but to emerge more clearly in the thirties, the years of the purges.

Those are the years which are still familiar to many. They marked the consolidation of the personal dictatorship of Stalin and the physical destruction of all the remaining figures of the revolution, whether of importance or not. Many of those murdered during the purges, were already completely destroyed politically and morally.

A new generation of bureaucrat had grown up—-the Stalinist generation, a generation to whom the revolution was known only through the falsification of history undertaken by Stalin's robot historian. A now regime was constructed out of those elements. It was under this leadership, too, that the purges were completed. It was this leadership which contributed to the Second World War through the Stalin-Hitler Pact. It was this generation that directed the nation through the war and the post-war Imperialist expansion, let It did all of this under the direct leadership and tutelage of "Cain" Stalin. From it emerges the regime of the new bureaucracy, the new class of a new society in Russia.

How could it happen that a man like Stalin could triumph over the Bolshevik party and men of greater stature than himself? Hew could he have triumphed over the Soviet state which marked a tremendous advance of democracy in Russia?

Superficial bourgeois historians and critics, as well as liberal-and social-democratic observers, have asserted that the triumph of Stalin and his totalitarian regime were the inevitable result of Bolshevism and its highly centralized and disciplined party; that the Stalinist system describes the real evolution of socialism. Incidental and accidental factors which aided Stalin (the death of Lenin, or Trotsky's failure to fight immediately) are given the weight of decisive historical importance. The arguments of these historians and critics have already been effectively replied to by Marxists, in the first place by Trotsky himself.

Despite his own great error in regarding Stalin's Russia as a "degenerated workers' state/" Trotsky wrote at great length against the completely superficial analyses made by these critics, which, he pointed out, was not so much a criticism of the specific nature of Bolshevism or Stalinism but of socialism. The explanation for the rise of Stalinism, said Trotsky, must be sought in the objective situation of society.

Stalin's role in this situation was not unimportant; on the contrary, Trotsky himself has supplied to the world a wealth of detailed analysis and information on the manner in which Stalin's intervention in the course of events determined their concrete development. But for a genuine understanding of the historical forces which pushed Stalin forward as a leading actor in the social drama of our times, it is necessary to seek out the fundamental factors behind that terrible development.

No one decisive factor brought this about, Trotsky wrote. Several very important ones were joined in the confluence of events.

The Russian Revolution occurred in a country of great backwardness - economic and cultural backwardness - in which the political level of the masses was far in advance of the economy or the culture of the nation. This was the startling contradiction of the combined development of a peasant land with an archaic agricultural system, but at the same time with a small, advanced and concentrated industrial system. It happened that the tsarist regime, at one and the same time the weakest and most corrupt in Europe, could not rule with any strength or confidence in the crisis created by the First World War in which it suffered the greatest losses of any country involved.

In the perspectives of the leaders, the Russian Revolution appeared only as the advance post in a revolutionary Europe where working class or socialist power seemed imminent in a number of countries, most notably Germany with its advanced industry, technology and wonderfully organized working class. The curve of the revolutionary wave was, however, extremely uneven. The revolution in Russia was visited by internal counter-revolution and external intervention by the Allied armies, including the American expeditionary forces.

Although the new regime successfully withstood these assaults, it came out of the war years greatly weakened. The economy of the country was virtually at a standstill. The sufferings of the people were incalculable. The flower of the Russian people had been destroyed in the war and the counter-revolution following 1917. Great weariness gripped the population; it was interested in peace, quiet, order and an end to sacrifice. A conservative reaction had set in.

A similar reaction occurred in Europe too, after the defeat of the German and Hungarian revolution. Fascism, under Mussolini, came to power in Italy. The consolidation of bourgeois society in the West led to the extreme isolation of the revolution, and in,a backward country at that. Reconstruction became the watchword in Russia. The internal dispute over industrialisation covered up temporarily the great weariness and conservatism which was present.

In these circumstances, it was possible for Stalin to rise to power, for he stood at the head of the conservative reaction, the personification of the new bureaucracy. Was this, therefore, the inevitable evolution of Bolshevism? To this Trotsky replied:

"Those theoreticians who attempt to prove that the present totalitarian regime of the USSR is due not to such historical conditions, but to the very nature off Bolshevism 'itself, forget that the Civil War did not proceed from the nature of Bolshevism but rather from the efforts of the Russian and international bourgeoisie to overthrow the Soviet regime. There is no doubt that Stalin, like many others, was moulded by the environment and circumstances of the Civil War, along with the entire group that later helped him to establish his personal dictatorship - Ordzhonikidze, Voroshilov, Kaganovich - and a whole layer of workers and peasants raised to the status of commanders and administrators."

It ought also to be remembered that the Bolshevik party had changed considerably in those few years. Five years after the revolution, more than 97 per cent of the party consisted of new members. Another five years, and the membership had only the vaguest recollections of the revolution and the generation which led it.

When Stalin consolidated his power, fully three-fourths of the membership had joined after 1923. This was a new generation of party members; it had no ties with the glorious past of the organisation, its traditions, its work and experiences.

"Thus," wrote Trotsky, "Stalin, the empiricist, without formally breaking with the revolutionary tradition, without repudiating Bolshevism, became the most effective betrayer and destroyer of both."

Trotsky recalled that in the spring of 1924, following a plenum of the Central Committee from which he was kept by illness, he told I. N. Smirnov: "Stalin will become the dictator of the USSR." Smirnov replied, "But he is a mediocrity, a colourless nonentity."

The reply Trotsky made to Smirnov in 1924 should be remembered by all for its perspicacity:

"Mediocrity, yes; nonentity, no. The dialectics of history have already hooked him and will raise him up. He is needed by all of them - by the tired radicals, by the bureaucrats, by the Nepmen, the kulaks, the upstarts, the sneaks, by all the worms that are crawling out of the upturned soil of the manured revolution. He knows how to meet them on their own ground, he speaks their language and he knows how to lead them. He has the deserved reputation of an old revolutionist, which makes him invaluable to them as a blinder on the eyes of the country. He has will and daring. He will not hesitate to utilize them and to move them against the party.

"He has already started doing this. Right now he is organizing around himself the sneaks of the party, the artful dodgers. Of course great developments in Europe, in Asia and in our country may intervene and upset all the speculations. But if every thing continues to go automatically as it is going now then Stalin will just as automatically become dictator".

One other point needs to be made about Stalin, his theory and perspectives. We have already referred to the presentation of his single "original" bold idea: Building Socialism in a Single Country. The very idea is in complete contradiction to the beliefs of socialism, which was conceived by its founders as an internationalist universal system, in contradistinction to an international capitalism made up of antagonistic national entities.

Stalin put forth his theory for the first time in 1924. Prior to that year, it was unheard of in the socialist or Marxist movement. There have been national-socialists before, many of them indeed, but none of them ever advanced or developed the theory promulgated by Stalin.

Actually Stalin had toyed around with the idea of a genuine social order of "national-socialism" before 1924. At a party gathering in the year of the revolution he began a speech containing the essence of the views formulated in 1924. But at that time nobody paid any attention to him whatever, and he retired quietly.

Stalin began, his political life in nationally oppressed Georgia. He began, therefore, as a national revolutionary and in the course of his development became attracted to Marxism and socialism. What did the great internationalist doctrines of Marx and Engels mean to the young man living in the deadly isolation of a backward oppressed nation of "backward Great-Russian imperialism”? It would seem to this writer that the theoretical and political horizon of Stalin, moulded as it was in his formative years in backward Georgia, grasped in Marxism and socialism only national liberation and a species of national-socialism. By socialism, he understood the expropriation of the bourgeoisie and perhaps the nationalisation of industry and collectivisation. It is difficult to say, for in the matter of theory, Stalin was ever the improviser, the borrower. Being an empiricist, he undoubtedly developed his policies as he went along.

But the fact that he was in essence an anti-internationalist, a national-Bolshevik with deep-rooted and unshakable prejudices against the great movements of the West, the leaders with a Western education and a high culture, would seem to indicate quite accurately the insularity of the man and how this insularity determined the course he pursued as dictator of Russia.

This is further borne out in the utterly reactionary campaigns he has repeatedly initiated against internationalism, cosmopolitanism, and all things progressive in the fields of culture.

The basis for his power, and the power of world Stalinism, rested, as it still does, on the complete failure of capitalism, in its state of permanent crisis, and the total incapacity of the American bourgeoisie, so backward politically and limited by its narrow bourgeois ideology, to know how to fight Stalinism. Stalin's power, and the power of his movement, rested, as it still does, on the failures of the working-class movements of socialism to turn the tide of social retrogression.

For that is what Stalinism feeds on, the decay and dis integration of world capitalism, the fear of war, the terrible poverty and insecurity of the peoples of the world. Because capitalism is bankrupt in the struggle against Stalinism, the new totalitarianism has been able to grow and expand.

He is the architect of the greatest totalitarian slave state the world has ever known. He is the architect of a new exploitive society, a society based upon collectivised property and ruled by a new bureaucratic class. He is the architect of bureaucratic collectivism, an anti-capitalist, anti-socialist society that has emerged from the chaos of modern capitalism and the defeat and disappearance of a socialist revolution.

It is a new kind of society never before seen in history, a society of modern slavery based upon an immense industrial structure in an atomic age.

This is his "contribution" to history. For this his name will live - but in the blackest pages of infamy.

Add new comment

This website uses cookies, you can find out more and set your preferences here.
By continuing to use this website, you agree to our Privacy Policy and Terms & Conditions.