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  • Published in Book Reviews

Tony McKenna’s compelling Marxist biography of Stalin disproves the allegation that October 1917 led directly to the dictator’s atrocities, argues Sean Ledwith 

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Tony McKenna, The Dictator, the Revolution, the Machine: A Political Account of Joseph Stalin (Sussex Academic Press 2016), 240pp.

This year’s one-hundredth anniversary of the Russian Revolution is partly overshadowed by the moustachioed and gimlet-eyed figure of Josef Stalin. As October draws closer we can expect a drearily predictable litany of articles and documentaries from right-wing historians (and some misguided left-wing ones) proclaiming the event as one of the great calamities of the twentieth century and the foundation of Russia’s ineluctable descent into a dark dictatorship presided over by the baleful cobbler's son from Georgia. The alleged thread of mass coercion connecting the careers of Lenin and Stalin will be one of the tropes of the right in its case against radical change of any form. Any similar project to cast off the shackles of capitalist inequality and oppression, it will be argued, can only lead inexorably to variations of the Gulag and the KGB.

Socialists who retain a conviction that this view is a gross, and often wilful, distortion of the historical reality will find Tony McKenna’s new biography of Stalin a robust antidote to this impending torrent of reactionary rubbish. The author takes as his starting point an affirmation that we should instead regard 1917 as ‘the point at which the forms of the future perforated the fabric of the present and through the rupture could be glimpsed the shimmering possibilities of a new world’ (p.170). By crisply dissecting the counter-revolutionary character of Stalin’s regime, McKenna builds a compelling case to reclaim the legacy of Lenin as one socialists can still apply today. This unusual combination of historical biography and contemporary commentary makes the book the perfect introduction to the man, the period and why they matter today.

Marxist biography

McKenna artfully deploys a richly dialectical approach to biography that weaves Stalin’s personal story with the tumultuous history of Russia in the modern era. By doing so, he provides a valuable template for how Marxist writers should approach the genre of biography. The unique features of one individual’s life are charted in correlation with the wider social and political struggles that propelled that person into the forefront of world history. McKenna skilfully avoids either a mechanical determinism that would reduce Stalin to a cypher of historical forces, or a bourgeois individualism that would make him the superhuman architect of a new society carved out of his own will. The dictator was undoubtedly an appallingly ruthless personality but without the rise of the bureaucratic stratum of the post-revolutionary regime he would have been a footnote in history. In the author’s words:

‘This impersonal, dead, materialistic awareness of process and routine bequeathed to him by modernity was at the same time galvanised by an almost infinite level of individual spite and enmity; it is this fusion, which more than anything else, exemplifies the moments of the primitive and the modern at work within the personality of the Soviet dictator’ (p.14).

In contrast, McKenna vividly creates a portrait of Lenin as a figure who embodied in an unprecedented manner the most advanced sensitivity to the ebb and flow of class struggle, complementing it with an unwavering focus on the goal of workers’ self-emancipation. The author recounts how, during the 1905 revolution, Stalin as a provincial member of the Bolshevik party was intellectually incapable of understanding how the emergence of the soviets, or workers’ councils, had subverted the Marxist orthodoxy of the time that the proletarians were incapable of taking power themselves in tsarist Russia. The leader of the Bolsheviks, however, had begun to ‘discern the forms and the outlines of a profoundly new and wonderful social vista.’ McKenna characterises this transformative capability to read the flow of class struggle as ‘one which Lenin was particularly attuned to, in much the same way that a meteorologist might detect in a change in the pressure of the air an indication of the oncoming storm’ (p.17).

While Lenin’s perfectly-calibrated revolutionary persona was able to respond to the peaks and troughs of revolutionary activity with remarkable flexibility, Stalin could only flourish when class struggle was on the wane. Following the crushing of the 1905 uprising, the Bolsheviks were forced to retrench their apparatus in Russia, allowing a cunning if uninspired mind like Stalin to come to the fore with his penchant for criminal and thuggish activities such as bank heists. These operations provided much needed financial resources for the party but they also underlined his inadequacy as a political thinker of any substance.

The bank robbing bureaucrat

In later years, these escapades would form part of the mythology of Stalin as a fearless Robin Hood-type character, tweaking the nose of the tsarist authorities with audacious bravado. McKenna points out the myth-busting reality that Stalin might have planned such operations but he was always careful never to put himself in the firing line, preferring to send others into harm’s way and monitor their progress from afar. Curiously, McKenna does not allude to widely-circulated rumours that the reason some of these heists were prematurely intercepted is that Stalin acted as double-agent for the tsarist police.

As the revolutionary high-tide surged back in early 1917, Stalin’s limitations as a theoretician were demonstrated again by his failure to grasp the true meaning of the February Revolution, and his willingness to provide political cover for the Provisional government’s call to continue Russian participation in the imperialist war with Germany. McKenna perceptively notes that this error was the product of both Stalin’s intellectual impoverishment and his preference for formulaic solutions. In his personality, writes the author:

‘two abiding themes seem to crystallise: an instinctive but overwhelming distrust - not only for the masses, but for the process of revolution itself. Also, the sense that the meaning and direction of political struggle should be located not in the mass movement but in the mechanisms of bureaucratic organisation’ (p.16).

Fortunately, Lenin and Trotsky, his closest collaborators by this point, were able to re-arm the party ideologically on the basis of the latter’s innovative theory of permanent revolution, which provided the justification for the working class taking power in a largely agrarian economy. Throughout the annusmirabilisof 1917, Stalin was little more than a spectator, dutifully following the new line of the leadership but with minimal comprehension of its theoretical underpinnings. He was appointed Commissar for Nationalities in the new Soviet regime but it did not take long for his intellectual shallowness to show itself again and to bring him into renewed dispute with Lenin.

When Bolsheviks in Ukraine unilaterally declared a workers’ republic in 1918 in the face of German occupation, Lenin immediately recognised it as an opportunity to release the pressure on other parts of the Soviet state. Stalin, in contrast, had fully absorbed the Great Russian chauvinism of the tsarist regime and denounced the Ukrainian revolutionaries as nationalists in disguise. This is ironic, of course, as Stalin was not even technically Russian himself, but he was still incapable of understanding how the Bolsheviks had to be sensitive to the hostility the old empire had generated among the national minorities.

Lenin did not lead to Stalin

McKenna highlights once more the contrasting nature of the thinking of the two pre-eminent leaders of Russia in the inter-war period. As an accomplished dialectician, Lenin grasped that what would:

‘bind the international working class movement to the Bolshevik Revolution was not the dictates which were imposed by the power of Moscow from afar; but the universal sense that they were all part and parcel of the unfolding of a more progressive form of human freedom. Such sensibilities were wholly alien to Stalin’ (p.21).

These embryonic disputes between the two men were mostly resolved in Lenin’s favour as the revolutionary movement was on an upward trajectory both at home and abroad in the immediate post-revolutionary period. After the civil war and the decimation of the Russian working class in the mid-1920s, however, Stalin’s conservative tendencies were attuned to the needs of the rising bureaucratic caste within the Bolshevik party. Lenin’s failing health made him physically incapable of resisting the degeneration of the regime, even though his mental faculties had detected it before his death in 1924. The author reminds us that Lenin’s last significant political act was a vain attempt to have Stalin removed from his position as party secretary (p.35).

Emphatically rejecting the familiar ‘Lenin led to Stalin’ mantra trotted out by bourgeois historians, McKenna discusses the evolution of the Cheka, the Soviet security service, to further illustrate the contrasting outlook of the two men. On its creation in 1918, Lenin stated categorically it must be subject to rigorous oversight by elected representatives. At the end of the civil war, a decree was issued that the prisons should be emptied apart from those containing the most irreconcilable enemies of the regime (p.30). By the end of the decade, however, the Cheka had morphed into the NKVD under Stalin’s auspices, and became an organisation that duplicated the arbitrary terror implemented by the tsarist police. This force symbolically re-introduced in 1932 the Tsar’s hated internal passport system that had been abolished by Lenin’s government (p. 64).

By this point, Stalin had decisively won the battle for power in the upper echelons of the Bolshevik party; first of all, side-lining Trotsky, then moving consecutively against Kamenev and Zioneviev, and then Bukharin, revealing himself to be the master of the political chessboard in terms of manipulative skill, if not of theoretical insight. The author stresses that the key to understanding Stalin’s tragic rise to power does not lie primarily in his own personality nor in putative flaws in the notion of a workers’ revolution in a pre-industrial economy. The essence of Stalinism is to be found in the material conditions that prevailed in the country in the wake of the armed intervention of Western armies and the failure of similar uprisings in the rest of the world. The physical depletion of the working class by the ravages of counter-revolutionary forces robbed the party of swathes of its best activists, and was followed by the stalling of the international left that might have provided crucial economic and political sustenance for the embattled Soviet state.

Socialism in One Country

Apologists for the Stalinist dictatorship argued that the high tide of revolution had ebbed by the late 1920s and that battening down the hatches, or ‘Socialism in One Country’ as it was labelled, was the only feasible policy for the USSR. McKenna rightly disputes this prognosis and outlines how the exiled Trotsky devised numerous strategic recommendations that might have facilitated other revolutionary breakthroughs, or at least averted the cataclysmic rise of fascism in states such as Italy, Germany and Spain. The author does not spare Trotsky from criticism of certain decisions, but overall is generous in recognising the heroic role of the man who came to personify principled opposition to Stalin from the left:

‘Trotsky began from a historically materialist premise and a Marxist and Leninist sense of the immanence of the proletarian revolution; the sense that a new historical epoch and its forms were all the time being called into being in a thousand and one ways from within the fabric of the present’ (p.96).

The author also pays tribute to the many followers of Trotsky who never gave up the struggle for authentic socialism within Russia even after it was clear that the grip of the Stalinist bureaucracy on the reins of power was unbreakable. He describes the occasional uprisings across the monstrous Gulag system in the 1930s organised by those who clung to the ideals of 1917 and who regarded the ascendant bureaucratic regime as a perversion of the true spirit of the revolution. He movingly describes one such rebellion at a camp in Kengir in Kazakhstan:

‘prisoners who had whispered small romantic consolations to one another in secret finally met out in the open. They saw each other’s faces for the first time. There was an awakening of freedom and joy, all the more resplendent because the light poured forth from conditions of such obsidian darkness’ (p.92).

Inevitably, Stalin’s henchmen smashed the resistance of the prisoners with brute force but many chose defiance in death over submission. The dissident writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn also included the story of this event in one of his autobiographical works: ‘Semyon Rak and his girl threw themselves under a tank clasped in each other’s arms and ended it that way’ (quoted on p.92).

All the above makes this study one of the best available for those who want a supply of left-wing ammunition against the persistent argument that socialism leads to dictatorship. The cumulative effect of McKenna’s account is a comprehensive demolition of any possible ideological affinity between Lenin and Stalin. In fact, the author cannot find space for the entirety of the latter’s inhumanity, with some notorious episodes not included, such as his wife’s suicide (brought on by her criticism of his growing tyranny), and his refusal to negotiate with the Nazis during the war for the release of his captured son (they consequently executed him).

What really sets McKenna’s book apart, however, is the closing section in which he powerfully makes the case for revolution in our century. The final chapter is a tour de force that links Lenin’s attempt to forge the world’s first proletarian state with the hollowing out of democracy we are witnessing all around us today. McKenna argues how episodes such the EU-inspired subversion of the Syriza government in Greece, and the plots by the Labour right to unseat Corbyn as leader, point to the urgent need to re-assert genuine workers’ power in a neoliberal world spiralling out of control. In defiance of those who seek to portray Lenin as a dictator, McKenna stoutly defends the revolutionary regime as the most democratic the world has yet seen:

‘The mode of production was under the control of the very people whose mental and physical powers truly set the basis for it. And such control, of necessity, took the form of a democracy which was responsive to the thoughts and feelings of the direct producers, day by day, week by week, month by month’ (p.167).

The ultimate testament to Trotsky, the rebels of Kengir camp and the millions of nameless victims of Stalinist terror, is that their actions and words can inspire us in this century; whereas the legacy of their killer has been reduced to ashes. The last word on Stalin should probably go to his mother; when he paid a rare visit to her Georgian home at the peak of his power in the 1930s, she curtly told him:‘You’d have done better to have been a priest’.

Sean Ledwith

Sean Ledwith

Sean Ledwith is Lecturer in History and Politics at York College, where he is also UCU branch chair. He is a member of Counterfire and York People's Assembly. Sean is also a regular contributor to Marx and Philosophy Review of Books and Reviews in History.

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