A Riposte to Stephen Kotkin’s ‘Stalin: Waiting for Hitler, 1929-1941’By Raj Sahai*.Source: Marxism-Leninism today.
Princeton University historian Stephen Kotkin is writing a monumental three-volume biography of Joseph Stalin. Kotkin’s is the latest in a large number of books on Stalin, starting with Isaac Deutscher in 1949. So, why yet another book on Stalin?
Kotkin says Stalin represents a “gold standard” in “personal dictatorship”, and more archival documents are now accessible, so now a definitive biography of Stalin can finally be written. He takes Isaac Deutscher’s three-volume biography of Trotsky as a model for his own work. Published in 2015, Kotkin’s first volume was titled ‘Stalin: Paradoxes of Power 1878 - 1928’. Volume 2, published in November 2017, is titled ‘Stalin: Waiting for Hitler, 1929 – 1941’.
In this second volume Kotkin describes in great detail the three major developments in this crucial 12-year period: Collectivization of Agriculture 1929-1933; The Great Purge1936-1938; and diplomacy and the Molotov-Ribbentrop Non-Aggression Pact signed in August 1939. Germany invaded U.S.S.R. on the early morning of June 22, 1941.
Imperialists Try to Smother the Socialist Baby
The U.S.S.R. was the first socialist country, emerging from the ruins of the First World War. It was immediately plunged into a bitter civil war during which armies from fourteen countries occupied the former Russian Empire’s territory in support of the defeated Russian landlords and capitalists. A further humiliation to the fledgling Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (RSFSR) was the Brest-Litovsk Peace Treaty negotiated with Germany in March 1918, obliging it to pay Germany war reparations and to cede a million square miles of territory, with 55 million habitants, to Germany or its sphere of influence, including the breadbasket of Ukraine.
Anti-Communist Kotkin Theses
Unlike historian Isaac Deutscher, who also wrote a biography of Stalin published in 1949, Kotkin is an unabashed anti-communist, who thinks Marxism is “idealism”. So, while Marxism aims for a society free of exploitation and oppression, Kotkin argues, its theory and practices are so blind, that it always ends up in despotism, while “promising heaven on earth”. Kotkin admits that Stalin had a normal childhood, that he was a good student, and that he was a dedicated revolutionary communist and a faithful follower of Marx and Lenin. Kotkin admits Stalin gained power legitimately, because he was a dedicated communist and who worked very hard. Kotkin also admits Stalin led a historic project that greatly improved the material lives of the vast majority of people in the former Russian Empire, won the Second World War, and built an industrial economy. But he claims Stalin, while of iron will, was a paranoid idealist who murdered his fellow Party leaders just for a difference of opinion or not even any reason, killed dedicated innocent cadres, competent and loyal military officers and even loyal policemen – those in the NKVD; all in such large numbers, that he seriously weakened the state he headed – in short, he was a “sociopath”. Kotkin claims Stalin got away with it because the Russian working class too was paranoid.
Kotkin’s book on Stalin is being promoted by the most prominent of U.S. institutions which form the intellectual core of imperialism: the Hoover Institute, the Council on Foreign Relations , and several prestigious universities, where he has delivered many lectures, besides public libraries and book stores. Both of these two volumes have been reviewed by New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal and the Guardian (UK), and the reviewers agree Stalin was a “murderous despot”. Kotkin is an engaging speaker - folksy, witty and charming.
The 1154-page second volume contains thousands of references. There are a lot of details and personal anecdotes in the book: what was served at banquets, the wines Stalin liked, which movies he liked and watched dozens of times, his favorite music, his singing and dancing, and his personal life: his relationship with his wife and children.
Stalin’s ghost haunts the U.S. ruling class today, as the specter of Communism did European rulers in 1848. Over the past three decades, the lives of the majority of workers in the US have become increasingly more precarious due to automation and export of industrial jobs to low-wage countries that have reduced industrial well-paid jobs and pushed the workforce towards low-wage, often temporary work. The Presidential election in 2016 showed a significant section of the U.S. population beginning to take a second look at socialism. The other developing trend is white-nationalism –a racist trend which could develop into fascism.
This essay examines Kotkin’s anti-communist theses and his conclusions on this crucial period of Soviet history.
Bourgeois Denial of Class
Kotkin claims Stalin the “dictator” “forced collectivization” on the 120 million peasants to bring the conservative peasant society to modernity. He ridicules the “idealism” of Marxism, in which the “six-cow-owning peasants” (kulaks) were considered capitalists while “three-cow-owning peasants” (mid-level, i.e., family farmers) did not! In doing so, Kotkin claims Stalin sent millions to gulags where he claims a lot of them perished. But Kotkin misses the main point: kulaks exploited landless peasants’ labor – and there were 5 million of them! This leads him into a false narrative, an ugly caricature of reality. But what then is the truth?
Capitalist Sabotage, Civil War and the New Economic Policy
Many Russian industrialists had severely sabotaged their own factories before escaping with their money to Western Europe and the U.S. after the confiscation of their properties following the 1917 revolution. Most well-paid managers and engineers also left the country along with the capitalists to settle in Western Europe and the United States. During the civil war “War Communism” of 1918-21, out of dire necessity, there was enforced collection of grain from the peasants, who were paid in the new Red Ruble, but with which they could not buy many factory products they needed – implements for their work and other consumer products because by 1921, industrial production had plummeted to barely 12 percent of what it was in the pre-World War-I year of 1913. The war with Germany and the civil war following the revolution had caused disruption of agricultural production as well, which further exacerbated the famines that were endemic for centuries throughout the Russian Empire. As a result of these conditions, the workers in the cities were literally starving, as portrayed in Boris Pasternak’s ‘Dr. Zhivago’.
The New Economic Policy (NEP), replacing war-communism was adopted in 1921 by the Bolshevik government to jumpstart the economy that was so severely disrupted by the revolution and the Civil War. It allowed the peasants to sell their surplus grain in the market for profit. The situation improved considerably with the NEP - agriculture and industrial production both revived by 1925. On the other hand, profits from the market trading of grain had enriched and also politically emboldened the Kulaks.
Right and Left Wing Oppositions Failed to Grasp Economic Reality
The kulaks were supported in the press by the Right Opposition: Bukharin, Rykov and trade union leader, Tomskii. Bukharin in 1925 exhorted the peasants to “enrich yourselves”, but only the kulaks had the means to do so – by exploitation of hired labor. The “Left Opposition” (led by Trotsky, Zinoviev and Kamenev), wanted rapid industrialization sooner and was opposed to NEP after Lenin’s death in 1924. But until there was enough capacity to produce tractors, NEP was a necessity, since heavy industrialization was impossible without imported machinery for which hard cash was needed. By 1927, kulaks began resisting the sale of their surplus grain at fixed prices to the state, which besides feeding the workers machinery damaged by sabotage and build new factories for tractors and other industrial products. However, until the first Five-Year plan was launched in 1928, even though industry was restored to its 1913 capacity, it was still mostly light (consumer) industry. Since credit was generally not available, a much greater agricultural surplus was needed to trade it with foreign countries to buy machinery to build heavy industry , so that the U.S.S.R. could become a modern industrial country like its major capitalist rivals, and escape the subjugation or overthrow of socialism by the imperialist countries.
A Limited Window of Time
Winston Churchill, the conservative later to become the British Prime Minister, aware that Britain had become a debtor nation in trying to contain the popular rebellions in its colonial empire, egged on the U.S. to do the “smothering of the socialist baby”. The U.S. today is a debtor, but in 1918 was a creditor country. But the half-starved workers in socialist Russia led by the Bolsheviks defeated all the occupiers and created a socialist union of Russia and former oppressed nations in 1922, the U.S.S.R., based on Stalin’s ably drafted constitution providing the former oppressed nations a collective veto power over Russia, so the Russian politicians and bureaucrats could not dominate them under socialism as they did under Czarism. The imperialist war had exhausted all of the European capitalist countries. Workers in these countries while too weak to overthrow capitalism, had a soft heart for the U.S.S.R. where workers like themselves were now the new ruling class. The capitalist countries’ workers were also highly organized, so their capitalist leaders were afraid to push them into a new war, fearing it could result in their own ouster as had happened in Russia recently. This window of time was limited so the Party was wise to use it to take advantage of it, but conditions would not allow it before 1929.
Collectivization of Agriculture a Necessity for Industrialization
Stalin in 1927 argued that for the U.S.S.R. to achieve socialism, collectivization of farm land could be done only on a socialist basis, otherwise developing capitalist agriculture would undermine socialism. Further, socialist style collective agriculture could be carried out on a mass scale only when the modern farm machinery became available on large scale, which became possible by 1930. For Kotkin this collectivization of agricultural lands was unnecessary. He forgets what happened just 13 years earlier, and claims this “unnecessary collectivization mistake” led Stalin then to “murder” all of his opponents in the party in the 1930s, and many even of his strong supporters who could potentially challenge his “personal dictatorship”! Kotkin is absurdly wrong!
Defeat of “Left Opposition”
Trotsky, Zinoviev and Kamenev, leaders of the so called “Left Opposition”, prepared a separate platform in 1927, which argued for greater worker benefits. They criticized the Party platform as favoring the kulaks in continuing the NEP – but middle farmers had not fully recovered. Stalin citing Lenin argued that worker-peasant alliance was of strategic importance to building socialism in the U.S.S.R., so ending the NEP at this stage would break the alliance. The oppositionists claimed the workers were with them, not Stalin-led wing of the Party.
The Party responded by providing all party cells in the entire country with copies of the Party platform as well as opposition platform: to study, debate and then vote. Roughly three quarters cast their votes: Oppositionists received 4,000, the Party 724,000 votes. Although completely routed, the Oppositionists did not give up the struggle. They organized a counter-demonstration on the massively attended Tenth Anniversary celebration of revolution, drawing very few workers. This was the last straw in their repeated factionalism, in which they had indulged despite the ban on forming factions that was passed in the 10th Congress in 1921, moved by a frustrated Lenin himself. The oppositionists were thrown out of the Party by the 15th Party Congress in December 1927. Others renounced their “Left” oppositionist views and were readmitted, but Trotsky refused. Consequently, he was exiled first internally to Alma Ata in Kazakhstan and later from the U.S.S.R. to Turkey in 1929.
The collectivization decision was debated vigorously and then voted on and adopted in open sessions of the 15th Party Congress held in December 1927. Right Opposition leaders Rykov, Bukharin and Tomskii then were still prominent party members – in fact, Politburo members in 1927. As such, they had an equal chance to persuade the Congress to vote against collectivization. They did but their arguments were rejected by the Congress. The reason the Party Congress adopted the program of collectivization was because of the validity of Stalin’s arguments, not because of he was a “dictator”.
Party Cadres Support Stalin’s Vision
Kotkin also believes, as did Trotsky and his followers to this day, that the party was filled with those for whom Stalin, “the bureaucrat” did favors as General Secretary, or because he controlled the police or other levers of power. This is not true; it was rather that Stalin was a visionary thinker; he understood that industrialization could not succeed on the scale needed to alleviate poverty, build a socialist society backed by a credible military force without building heavy industry infrastructure and for which, much a greater agricultural surplus was needed. Machine tools could be purchased only from advanced industrialized countries. Industrialization could not be achieved without sufficient number of peasants freed from the small labor -intensive farms to work in the new industry. The Bolshevik Party also knew from Russian history and from experience that failure to rapidly industrialize would result in the defeat of socialism and return to the rule of domestic and foreign landlords and capitalists. Kotkin, blind to real nature of imperialism, can’t see this harsh reality.
Kulaks Political Isolation Prepares the Ground for Collectivization
Heavy Industrialization and Collectivization Advance
In the countryside, poor peasants began to join collective farms voluntarily, which were supplied tractors, money, and counsel by the workers state, improving their working conditions and making their efforts more productive. This reality, easily comprehended by poor Russian peasants who wanted the change in their lives from that of drudgery, poverty, sickness and premature death to that of food security, health care and dignity in a collective effort to achieve it – is beyond comprehension by our bourgeois professor.
Next Step - Elimination of Kulaks as a Class
At the end of 1929, with the growth of both the collective farms and state farms, the Soviet Government turned sharply from a policy of restricting the kulaks (capping the extent of their wealth, land holdings, labor hiring, etc.) to a policy of eliminating the kulak as a class. It repealed laws on the renting of land and the hiring of labor, thus depriving the kulaks of land and of hired laborers. It lifted the ban on the expropriation of the kulaks. It permitted the poor peasants’ committees to confiscate cattle, farm machinery and other farm property from the kulaks for the benefit of the collective farms.
In 1929, the kulaks comprised less than five percent of the peasant population of the U.S.S.R., but owned a third of the farm animals. Middle peasants (self-employed farmers, owning several farm animals) comprised about twenty percent. The remaining seventy five percent of the peasant population were either the poor peasants (up to one farm animal), unable to survive on their lands’ yields, so performed part-time labor for others, or were landless peasants who worked full-time on the kulak farms.
Poor Peasant Committees, formed in the revolution, now moved to confiscate kulak lands and animals for collectivization, but it was not without a fight put up by the kulaks, who had guns, goons and money on their side. The better off sections of the middle peasants also joined the kulaks, so it was a class-war between the 18 - 20 percent upper crust of the peasantry pitted against the lower around 80 -82 percent. This upper crust of peasants owned more than half of all farm animals, and since they could not sell them, they chose to slaughter their animals and burn their seeds in storage sheds rather than give it to collective farms. For these crimes, 400,000 kulaks and their families, not all of the kulaks, were forcibly moved to work camps, “gulags”, where they suffered in the primitive conditions, and many died. But these were work-camps, not concentration camps, in which the Nazis killed people deliberately.
For the kulak families, Kotkin has a lot of sympathy, but the suffering and early deaths of the half-starved poor peasants prior to the collectivization was something “natural”, so it goes unnoticed by him. For Kotkin, the capture of the state by the Russian workers was not a revolution but a “coup”. Little surprise then that he sees the collectivization as “enslavement” of the entire peasantry, while in reality it was the liberation of over 80% of the peasants from hunger, deprivation, back-breaking dawn-to-dusk work; and a chance to advance themselves to literacy, education and thus to civilization.
Collectivization Ended Famines and Facilitated Industrialization
The Great Purge
It was in fact not paranoia, but rather the resolute determination of the new state of workers that it would harshly punish anyone who conspired to overthrow it. History’s second worker state was not yet strong enough to sustain such opposition without running the risk of being overthrown. Bolsheviks were acutely aware of the history of the first workers state, the Paris Commune of 1871, which was mercilessly crushed, and thousands of workers slaughtered by the propertied classes, because the Communards failed to act resolutely against their enemy.
And could Russian workers forget that their new-born state was attacked by armies of the former landlords in the Civil War, backed by 14 powerful capitalist countries, who invaded and occupied Soviet Russia right after the October 1917 revolution? It is why workers trusted Stalin – he personified their resolve. They were ready to make all the necessary sacrifices, as they in fact did in the Civil War and later in World War II.
Marxism Fights Capitalist Exploitation and Imperialist Domination
For Kotkin, the terms ‘exploitation’, ‘class struggle’, ‘capitalism’, ‘imperialism’ are all ridiculous, a figment of imagination conceived by Marx and Lenin to create what he mockingly calls a “paradise on earth”. He subscribes to the “end of history” thesis, by which capitalism and bourgeois democracy, manipulated by the mass media owned by the capitalist class, expresses the “highest” and “best” development of human civilization, and “best governance”. So, for him and his bourgeois readers, the phrase ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ can only mean dictatorship by an individual, but in fact, here it is Stalin only as representative of the iron will of the vast majority, not as a “despot”. Stalin himself would have suffered the same fate, had he deviated from the path of socialism, such was the stage of the revolution in 1930s, as in fact happened to some other prominent leaders. Blinded by his own ideology, Kotkin proceeds to give Stalin a “promotion”: from a “dictator” to a “despot” as the repressions of 1936-38 period unfolded. But what are the facts?
Kirov Assassination Conspiracy Launches Repressions
On December 1, 1934, Sergei Mironovich Kirov, First Secretary of the Communist Party in Leningrad Province was assassinated by a Party member and unemployed worker, Leonid Nikolaev. Arrested on the scene, Nikolaev at first claimed that he killed Kirov in order to ‘shake up’ the party from its insensitivity towards workers like himself. However, within one week, he admitted he did not act alone, but rather was part of a conspiracy of a clandestine group of Party members opposed to Stalin and favoring Zinoviev.
Why? Zinoviev had been replaced by Kirov as Leningrad Party leader in 1926. Kotkin, believes Nicolaev killed Kirov for personal reasons. Kotkin further claims Stalin set up Nikolaev in order to destroy his opponents, Zinoviev and Kamenev and that Stalin later used Kirov’s murder to unleash terror in 1936 that led to the deaths of many other Party leaders and state officials, so that he could become an absolute dictator, i.e., a “despot”. Kotkin ignores the fact that because of lack of concrete evidence available to the prosecutor, Zinoviev and Kamenev, who were tried for being leaders of the conspiracy that led to Kirov’s death, were not convicted of the conspiracy to commit the murder, but on a lesser charge of ‘moral responsibility’ for creating anti-party moods in the workers.
For Kotkin, as for all other anti-communist scholars, the three Moscow trials of prominent Communist Party members were “staged”, the testimonies of scores of defendants “scripted” by the NKVD, and the defendants all “innocent”, “framed” in “show trials”. But anyone who has read the verbatim trial transcripts as I have, could never honestly agree to these characterizations. Nor could any honest reader of the trial transcripts come away believing that the defendants were innocent but forced to incriminate themselves in capital crimes.
Numbers of Innocent Victims
A third group was of totally innocent persons who were killed in the proceedings of the emergency NKVD troikas [three-person commissions] in which the troika judges themselves were part of the conspiracy. These hasty and unjust troika decisions were motivated by a desire to cover their own tracks, showing themselves to be a vigilant party members. Unbeknownst to Stalin and the Politburo until the autumn of 1938, they attempted to create dissatisfaction in the general public against the Party headed by Stalin. And finally, many innocents also perished in this situation because of plain incompetence and mistakes of the NKVD. This was a class war that began in 1917 and it was not over until 1940.
Oppositionists’ Lack of Faith on Building Socialism led to Conspiracy
Innocents also died in the U.S. Civil War. Can the burning of Atlanta, Georgia by General Sherman to break the Confederacy’s will to fight on before the November 1864 election be called anything other than deliberate killing of the civilian population and revolutionary terror? Yet Abraham Lincoln is not judged to be a brutal man and no one claims he killed innocents to impose his personal will in the service of capitalist ideology. Lincoln did not kill his own party members, it is true, but was assassinated himself instead. Irresolution has consequences. Compromise with the slave-owning South haunts U.S. democracy to this day in the form of the ‘Electoral College’. After the defeat of Reconstruction in 1876, the slave landlords retained their former property, to be exploited as sharecroppers not slaves.
Truth Begins to Filter Out