Tag Archives: Russian Revolution

Communism: A fine idea but a failed experiment

800px-Lenin,_Engels,_Marx

Lenin, Engels and Marx. (Original author: unknown; Source: here)

Communism: A fine idea but a failed experiment

“Let the ruling classes tremble at a Communist revolution. The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win. Working men of all countries, unite!” Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, ‘The Communist Manifesto’.

Well, here’s a happy topic and one which you have been looking forward to, no doubt, with some eager anticipation: Communism. This was a political ideology that a lot of people around the world used to believe in when there were political ideologies to believe in. Some countries are still called ‘Communist’ but it has fallen away so quickly since 1990 that it is becoming difficult for many people to remember just what Communism was all about. And it is almost impossible to recall just how frightening and threatening the Communist system was to those of us growing up in the Western world, the world of capitalism and democracy, a world fighting an epic battle for ‘good’ against ‘evil’. People recall things like, ‘They built a wall, didn’t they?’, but the general view is that ‘It failed, so it can’t have been much good’. But what was Communism all about? Why did people believe in it? Why was it so frightening? And why did it ‘fail’? So here begins a quick look at the most famous left-wing policy of them all.

‘Communism’ as a word that looks very like ‘commune’, ‘common’ and ‘community’, which is just as it should be for its focus is on the community over the individual. There is nothing unusual in stressing the importance of community in human history, of course, for every family, tribe and settlement has been a reflection of the human need to belong to a group. No child can survive without someone to care for them. Few, if any, individuals have all of the knowledge and skills needed to survive completely in isolation. It is natural for people to give to a group in some way and to receive from it. So where did this ‘frightening’ ideology come from if it was in some ways an expression of something so natural?

‘Communism’, or ‘Marxism’ as it is often known,as a political system is the name for the extreme left-wing ideology originally developed by two Germans, Karl Marx (1818-1883) and Friedrich Engels (1820-1895), in the middle of the nineteenth century. You will almost certainly have heard of Marx, a German philosopher, journalist, historian and revolutionary, although you might not be aware of Engels, his main supporter and collaborator. In simple terms, Marx did the writing and the thinking while Engels provided the money and other support to allow him to work. Before we look in more detail at these two fascinating characters, we should have a photo of the memorial to them in Berlin which reminds us of just what fine facial hair these two revolutionaries developed. They are a serious contrast to the modern, image obsessed politicians who lead most modern governments.

MarxEngels_4a

A close-up of the statue of Marx and Engels in Schlossplatz, Berlin. (Author: Manfred Brückels; Source: here)

There was some graffiti painted onto this statue after the collapse of Communism in East Germany in 1989: ‘It was not our fault!’ This was a very reasonable point, really, as what came to be called ‘Communism’ was rather different from what Marx and Engels intended. The truth is that the system which we know as ‘Communism’, the system of Lenin, Stalin and Mao, of the USSR, China and North Korea, the ideology that so threatened the West in the Cold War era, was a long way from being that envisioned by Marx and Engels. There was definitely a breakdown between the ‘planners’ and the ‘producers’ when it comes to communism. There was actually a rather heated debate in Berlin about whether or not this monument to the ‘founders’ of Communism should be kept or removed after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989; it was surely both a good and a necessary thing that it has remained in place as it would have been too easy for people to deny or ignore the past. In a world lacking ideology and integrity in the political world, the statue is a reminder that people have thought differently in the past – even if their ideas have not been successful or accepted. If success were the only criteria, it might be logical that all religious iconography in Western Europe would be torn down for a start – and as for the split between the original visions of the religious founders and the modern expressions of their ideas…well, that is a whole other story.

So, back to our finely bearded protagonists, especially Karl Mark. Marx was a German, born in 1818 in the town of Trier, near the border with Luxembourg and France. He was from a Jewish background being the son of a rabbi in a family of rabbis. His family can be described as upper-middle class family and he enjoyed a privileged upbringing. Marx went to the University of Bonn before moving on to the University of Berlin where he came under the influence of the ideas of Georg Hegel. Hegel had said, ‘Philosophy is its own time raised to the level of thought’ (in ‘Elements of the Philosophy of Right’), a phrase open to much debate but one which the young Marx and others took as a call to action that challenged the established order in Germany. Hegel believed that the only way to understand things in the present was to see them as a part of some unrelenting or irresistible march of freedom, truth and reason. This idea suggested that human freedom would come about as a result of this ‘progress’. Alongside this ideology, the rejection of religion as a valid means of understanding or addressing life and real issues was a key theme, centred on the work of another philosopher, Ludwig Feuerbach.

Marx’s radical ideas did not go down well in the university and he was blocked by the authorities from continuing his academic career and so he moved to Paris and worked as a journalist. In Paris, Marx met up with many German thinkers and activists who had left their country to escape the oppression of living under a dictatorship. In France just half-a-century after the French Revolution, his radical ideas were considered more ‘normal’ than in Prussia. Marx saw a more aggressive and, for him, advanced working class challenging the control and oppression that they suffered at the hands of the powers in the state, such as the politicians, church authorities and business leaders. He studied History and Social Sciences, both in Paris and, later, in Brussels, developing his observation that the more workers contributed to the capitalist system, the more they were alienated from the final outcomes, namely, the rewards, the profits. The workers might create great things through their skills and labour but they never had the chance to own them or to share fully in the profits; these belonged to the oppressive ‘bosses’ of society, the owners, the authorities. This sense of injustice and inequality in the means of wealth production became the heart of his idea of a ‘class struggle’; the alienation of workers seen in the control and exploitation of the proletariat by the landowners, nobility and the bourgeoisie under capitalism was to become the background for revolution.

By the time he met Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels had already spent some time in England, much of it in England. With its many cotton mills, Manchester stood at the heart of the ‘Industrial Revolution’, and, therefore, represented an expression of capitalism in its fullness. Industry had transformed the British landscape and society and, through its huge and growing Empire, it was shaping change across the globe. The population of Britain was growing and moving from the countryside to the towns; mechanisation was revolutionising employment; fortunes were being made but many of the people were being thrust into poverty. The experiences of Britain were being echoed in the rapid changes of European economies, too. Engels was actually from a reasonably wealthy family that was involved in mills and textile production, one of the bosses or ‘exploiters’. It is interesting to note that it was only through the money he made as a boss that Engels was able to support Marx in his revolutionary work. He is far less famous than Marx, so a proper picture might help at this point, especially as it gives another chance to admire his beard, an absolute gem of its kind. Actually, let’s put Marx in as well as they were such a team. You could lose a couple of small squirrels in their facial growth and they wouldn’t feel a thing.

548px-Karl_Marx

220px-Friedrich_Engels
Karl Marx (Author: unknown; Source: here) Friedrich Engels (Author; unknown: Source: here)

The reason why Engels knew England so well was that, in the early 1840s, he had been sent to Manchester to help run his father’s cotton mill. While he was there he became interested in the condition of the workers, believing they struggled under inhumane conditions. His studies led to the publication of an important book, which was ignored by most people at the time. This was, ‘The Condition of the Working Class in England’ (1845). It’s interesting to compare Engels’ findings with those of Charles Booth and Seebohm Rowntree some fifty years later because it shows how so much in life is about having the right message for the right audience at the right time. Engels’ message was a clear warning of what Booth and Rowntree later identified but for some reason his work had little impact at the time; it’s really not the validity of what you have to say so much as the willingness of the audience to hear it which matters in so many areas of life.

Anyway, Engels was horrified by the terrible living conditions he found in places like Saint Helens, Oldham and Manchester itself. The depth and the extent of poverty amongst the workers was frightening, their poor health was a great concern and, most of all, the injustice was intolerable in his eyes. The gap between rich and poor was stark and growing greater each day as privileged employers exploited the workers for profit. Engels first met Marx in Paris in 1844 and they struck up an immediate friendship based on their sense of injustice about the impact of industrial change with Marx coming at it from a philosophical angle, Engels from his practical experience. At about the same time, Marx also made contact with the ‘Communist League’ which had developed from ‘The League of the Just’, an organisation set up by German workers who had emigrated from their homeland in the previous decade. While in Brussels in 1847, Marx joined Engels in attending a conference of the ‘Communist League’. The speech that he gave there was an expression of their ideas as formed over the previous years and it was published the following year as the ‘Communist Manifesto’, one of the most famous documents of the century.

Although Marx was the thinker and visionary, Engels played a crucial role in bringing the ‘Manifesto’ into existence. He supported Marx financially during these years, giving him the royalties from his book as a way of supporting his friend while he developed his philosophy. Engels’ support enabled Marx to commit himself entirely to his reflections as it allowed him to read, write and travel free from any financial pressure. The publication of the ‘Communist Manifesto’ was actually a development of a piece of Engels’ own work which was called ‘The Principles of Communism’. Marx took this and developed it into the manifesto itself, foreseeing a class struggle which would end with ‘World Revolution’ and the overthrow of the oppressive business owners and landowners, the so-called bourgeoisie. The ‘Workers’ or the ‘Proletariat’, would rise up and establish a new system where everything was shared in common; there would be a classless society of total equality. This utopian ideal was rooted in the injustice Engels had seen and smelt in the slums of northern England; its goal was justice, fairness, equality and opportunity for all at the expense of the privileged few. Apart from the expected violence which would be necessary in the initial stages of the revolution, the vision was almost religious in its aims and values.

Communist-manifesto

‘The Manifesto of the Communist Party’, February, 1848. (Author: unknown; Source: here)

‘The Communist Manifesto’ was published in February, 1848, just as Europe was on the verge of one of the most traumatic years in its history. The pamphlet seemed to be truly of its time because risings of workers in 1848 threatened every major European country except Britain – and, even there, tensions rose with the revolutionary demands of the Chartists. It was known as the ‘Year of Revolution’ as France, Spain Austria and Germany all experienced major political change and radical social upheaval loomed large in the political consciousness. Having spoken of risings of the workers, it all seemed set to come true and Marx and Engels were among those happy to see the uprisings which threatened to tear the continent apart during the summer of 1848. Their ideas expressed a new vision which came to inspire many intellectuals and idealists, as well as the lower classes, but made enemies of the established ‘powers’, the politicians, the monarchs, the churches and the business leaders. In the face of these troubles in Europe, and the inflammatory nature of their words, both Marx and Engels were expelled from Belgium.

Without going into great detail about the ‘Communist Manifesto’ itself, it might be interesting to see a summary of the demands of the Communist Party in Germany from this period. They indicate something of the goals of the party if not their strategies or arguments. Not all of these arguments seem very frightening today but in the mid-19th century, they terrified many leading figures in politics, society and the churches.

Demands of the Communist Party in Germany
  1. The whole of Germany shall be declared a single indivisible republic.
  2. Representatives of the people (MP’s) shall be paid so that workers also can sit in the parliament of the German people.
  3. Universal arming of the people.
  4. The estates of the princes and other feudal estates, all mines, pits, etc., shall be transformed into state property. On these estates, agriculture is to be conducted on a very large scale and with the most modern scientific means for the benefit of all society.
  5. Mortgages on peasant holdings shall be declared state property; interest on such mortgages shall be paid by the peasants to the state.
  6. In the districts where tenant farming is developed, land rent or farming dues shall be paid to the state as a tax.
  7. All means of transport: railway, canals, steamships, roads, post, etc., shall be taken over by the state. They are to be converted into state property and put at the disposal of the non-possessing class free of charge.
  8. Limitation of the right of inheritance.
  9. Introduction of a steeply graded progressive taxation and abolition of taxes on consumer goods.
  10. Establishment of national workshops. The state shall guarantee a living to all workers and provide for those unable to work.
  11. Universal free elementary education.

Having been forced from Belgium, Marx and Engels made their way to London, where Marx himself would settle for the rest of his life. London was a very tolerant and open society for revolutionaries in those days, and many outsiders from Europe found their way there. Marx eventually died in 1883 and is buried in London’s Highgate Cemetery alongside some other famous names including Michael Faraday, George Eliot, Christina Rosetti and Douglas Adams. Key places linked with him in London include: the Reading Room at the British Museum where he wrote his famous work, ‘Das Kapital’; Covent Garden where meetings of the First International took place; and Hampstead Heath where he used to enjoy trips out with his family on Sundays. While Marx was in England, he was protected by the British Government of the time on the grounds of allowing people to express their ideas, which is an interesting situation as he was effectively considered to be a terrorist by some states. Britain’s interest was always in its Empire and helping rebels who annoyed the European powers was almost a pleasure for the Government at the time. Marx was not allowed back to Germany but Engels did return there to  work for his father but regularly visited London and he continued to support Marx financially.

468px-Karlmarxtomb

Marx’s Grave in Highgate Cemetery: ‘Workers of all lands unite’. (Author: here; Source: here)

After Marx’s death, Engels publicised his work, writing commentaries and making it more suitable for publication. Neither lived to see the ‘Communist Revolution’ and they would have been shocked to see what happened in Russia and the world in the years after 1917. They had fully expected revolution to happen in an advanced industrial country, such as Britain or Germany, where the exploitation of the masses created the conditions for a true uprising. They had thought that revolution had come in 1848 when Europe was thrown into turmoil, and were dismayed that the moment passed without the sweeping changes they expected. They both died having changed politics and philosophy but without seeing the fulfilment of their dream – and they would almost certainly have had some questions for Lenin and others in terms of what was done in their name in the Twentieth Century.

Obviously Marx and Engels were revolutionaries who wanted the overthrow of oppressive powers in society but would they have recognised or approved of what came to be known as ‘Communism’? Would they have been admirers of Lenin, Stalin, Mao Zedong or Fidel Castro? Was the Communism of the USSR and China, North Korea and Cuba, what Marx had in mind? Did these systems address the issues as Engels saw them? It seems highly unlikely that they would have been in total agreement with the reality of ‘communism’, but that’s what tends to happen when other people get hold of your ideas in a different place and at a different time. It’s a bit like writing a song, releasing it yourself to no particular acclaim and then discovering that it’s been covered by Chris de Burgh, Lady Gaga and Primal Scream; the words might be the same but you never thought it would come out quite like that. You get the idea, anyway.

So, what was ‘Communism’ supposed to be? What was it supposed to change? In the ideological world, ‘Pure Communism’ was to mean a number of things: there would be no private ownership of property or business; people would work according to their skills and be paid according to their needs; people would live in the same accommodation as each other and there would be no classes; there would  be no nations due to people being united by their bond as ‘workers’ rather than any idea of nationality; there would be no need for democracy and elections as there would be unity amongst the people, a shared vision and absolute freedom as all would be united in one community. The words of ‘Imagine’ by John Lennon come to mind in some ways.

One particular area of controversy was Communism’s approach to religion and the churches. For Marx and Engels, there would be no organised religion as this was a tool by which the powerful in society controlled the people, allowing them to believe that troubles here on earth might bring pain but they would eventually be compensated by the glories of heaven. The churches, therefore, preached a message of cooperation with the authorities which allowed exploitation and oppression to be maintained. In return, the leaders of the churches were allowed privileges alongside the highest in the land as long as they ensured the people were loyal, committed and passive; in the mean time, the powerful could enjoy their rewards here and now. Marx’s view on religion was expressed in one of his most famous quotes but one which is usually misquoted: ‘Religion is the opium of the people’. Just so you know it but don’t show yourselves up by misquoting it, here it is in full:

Religious distress is at the same time the expression of real distress and the protest against real distress. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is required for their real happiness. The demand to give up the illusion about its condition is the demand to give up a condition which needs illusions.
Karl Marx, ‘Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right’

It should be noted that this is not quite as negative about religion as it might sound. It speaks of religion as the ‘heart’ of a ‘heartless world’. At the time, opium or heroin was commonly used as a pain-killer so Marx was saying that organised religion acted as an anaesthetic against the pains of everyday life for the poor. The real evil for Marx lies in the system, capitalism, and not with religion which seeks to help alleviate the suffering of so many oppressed by that system. The religious authorities, though, collaborated with the economic and political powers, emphasising the glories of the next world over the need for justice in this one, and so allowed religion to support the oppression of the workers. In this, Marx would probably have been concerned by the aggressive actions of Lenin, Stalin and others in seeking to destroy the churches. Khrushchev’s decision, for example, to take his first wife’s coffin over a wall rather than have her carried through a Russian Orthodox Church on the way to her grave would have struck Marx as foolish, unnecessary and misguided.

It is obvious to see why Communism made enemies and, in the end, failed. Taking the second point first, Communism failed because most people are, to a greater or lesser extent, selfish. As long as you care more about people you know than people you don’t know, Communism cannot work as people do not see everyone in the world as equally important or as their ‘brother and sister’. Full unity is not possible when family ties, nationality, race, culture, language, gender, age and a dozen other factors can cause divisions that are anything from a hindrance to an insurmountable obstacle. Marx never really took full account of the individual in his system; the dream of being special is there in most people, and being or feeling at least slightly different, slightly better, slightly wealthier, slightly better dressed and slightly happier than others means that true equality does not appeal to many people, if any.

Of equal importance in the failings of Communism was that fact that its enemies were many and they were powerful. It’s easy to see who they were and why they were unhappy. They were the established authorities who had status, power and influence in social, economic, political and religious terms. Communism did not choose its enemies wisely, raising anxiety amongst landowners and business leaders, monarchs and the nobility, church leaders and politicians. And alongside these groups were many individuals who aspired to belong to those groups, living by values which were in direct contrast with those of Communism. It is possible to see Marx and Engels as incredibly naïve, rooting their theory in the idea of unity amongst peoples who would define themselves as ‘workers’, embracing unknown ‘others’ against those with whom they already had some bond: language, religion, race, culture, family, friendship. And the idea that such a unity might exist for ever after the removal of the common enemy, the oppressive leaders of society and industry, was equally extreme.

800px-Flowers_for_Princess_Diana's_Funeral

The response shown by so many people at the death of Princess Diana in 1997 was a rare example of an outpouring of emotion for someone few people actually knew – but it was an emotion not shared by everyone. (Author: Maxwell Hamilton; Source: here)

The fatal flaw in Communism, therefore, was its failure to grasp what motivated real people. As mentioned above, people usually care more about people they know rather than people they don’t know. They tend to be selfish and look for their own survival (individually and as a group) which is why ‘true’ martyrs are so rare, those who will die for an idea or to save someone they do not know at all. People are more than theories and ideals; most need something real and practical too. The highly committed believers may meet, debate, argue and really live out their ideology but most people see them as ‘fanatics’, and get on with their own lives: work, home, food, leisure, competition, savings, dreams and so on tend to dominate life for ordinary people. When fanatics take over, be they religious, political or whatever, then ordinary people tend to get bored, confused, angry and demoralised. One only has to see what happens when the ‘World Cup’ comes along every four years. The committed football fan gets excited; the majority at best tolerate it, maybe watching the odd game, during which they will probably annoy the true fan by asking questions that are either distracting, simplistic or irritating: Which team’s in blue? Why do they kick each other? Just what does ‘off-side’ mean? They are not as bothered or as obsessed as the true fanatic. Marx, Lenin and others never grasped this fundamental issue and the failure to convince ordinary people of the nature and benefits of ‘true’ Communism was a key to its eventual demise.

Despite these problems, Communism can and does exist but only rarely and on a small scale. It can be seen in highly motivated, ideological communities, two examples being some religious communities (monasteries) and on a kibbutz. Looking at a monastery, those who enter do so of their own choice and make a life-long commitment, although that can be broken. They take various vows: poverty means not seeking or receiving particular rewards for your work, which brings a clear form of equality; obedience means that your own ideas and values are not imposed on others or used to argue with others, as you accept your role within the running of the larger community, another form of equality; a vow of chastity is often taken, not just an issue around marriage or sex, but a commitment of equality in friendship and belonging with all in the community. The leader of the community is chosen by the community itself, serving the whole group in a way that protects them and leaves them free to do what they need to do. The leader serves for a set period of time before returning to the ranks as an ordinary member of the community. Communism is possible and has worked in the past but it is rare, not for all and requires certain conditions to be met. It demands total commitment and belief in the system and the values it proclaims. It must also be freely chosen and not imposed on the unwilling. Many people are religious and have enough belief to go to a church, mosque or temple regularly; but the majority are not motivated to give their lives over to it. In the same way, Communism appealed to a core group ideologically, made sense to some in particular circumstances but never appealed to the majority as a way of life. It does not mean the ideology itself was ‘bad’, it just never had enough rewards or made enough sense to people who had other values.

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels were not ‘bad’ men, as some people try to portray them. In many ways they were visionaries who expected change in the name of justice and equality for all. It’s not that they were wrong, it’s just that too many key people thought they were wrong; they ignored certain things about ordinary people and made enemies of too many powerful people because that ‘justice and equality for all’ thing’ is just a bit too much to take. In many ways, their are many people suffering because of capitalism today who probably wish their full vision had come to dominate the world. Exploitation and oppression remain but, with rampant individualism and consumerism in the ascendancy, communism is unlikely to be anything other than a footnote in history for some time to come.

 

Joseph Stalin: ‘Man of the Year’, 1939 and 1942.

Josef Stalin

Joseph Stalin: ‘Man of the Year’, 1939 and 1942.

‘It is enough that the people know there was an election. The people who cast the votes decide nothing. The people who count the votes decide everything.’ Joseph Stalin

When Britons are asked to name an evil person from history they almost always go for Adolf Hitler. This is probably why so few British children have been called ‘Adolf’ recently. To be honest, it comes as something as a shock to hear that even 25 babies have been so named since 1945, as one has to assume at least a few were in honour of Germany’s most notorious leader. There’s no doubt that ‘The Führer’ was an astonishingly nasty man and no one can seriously object to Hitler as Rolling Stone’s choice as ‘The Most Hated Man in Modern History’ in 2009. However, Hitler is far from being the only contender for that dubious crown, and there are others who have committed the most horrific crimes but who seem to have somehow slipped under the radar. In the Twentieth Century alone there were many people who would have recognised Hitler as a kindred spirit. They might not have agreed with him politically, but in terms of tactics, the likes of Mao Zedong in China, Pol Pot in Cambodia, Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Idi Amin Dada in Uganda would have understood where he was coming from. Of all the challengers, though, maybe one stands out as the real contender for the title of ‘Most Evil Man of the Century’: Joseph Djughashvili, the Georgian peasant better known to the world by his nickname, ‘Stalin’, which means ‘Man of Steel’. One has to be impressed by ‘Time Magazine’ here. Not happy with honouring Hitler as their ‘Man of the Year’ for 1938, they followed this up by giving the award to Stalin in 1939 and 1942. Strange times, indeed.

Joseph Stalin led the Soviet Union or USSR (the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics) from 1928 until his death in 1953. Despite the fact that even the prisoners cried when he died, the fact that Stalin was Saddam Hussein’s hero should be enough to warn us that here was a man of some darkness. When Saddam visited Moscow as the leader of Iraq, he was only interested in seeing Stalin’s rooms. When he was growing up, he apparently modelled himself on Stalin: he grew a similar moustache, smoked the same cigarettes and he imitated his behaviour when he came to power, including ethnic cleansing and the ‘removal’ of enemies. And both Saddam and Stalin had something in common as they were, for significant periods of time, close allies of the West receiving some serious assistance from the USA and Britain. This has almost certainly been a key factor in explaining why Stalin has never been seen as quite as bad as Hitler. Let’s have a look at why Saddam and some others have loved this man while most Westerners have managed no more than fear tinged with a little respect and a lot of gratitude.

Stalin_lg_zlx1

Joseph Stalin (1878-1953) (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

Saddam_Hussein_1974

Saddam Hussein (1937-2006). Photographed in 1974, this shows Saddam as a young imitator of the ‘Man of Steel’. The moustache lacks a little flair. (Author: ; Source: here)

Joseph Djughashvili (1879-1953) was born in Georgia, a part of the Russian Empire at the time and also one of the states which later formed the USSR. He was from a peasant background but showed himself to be reasonably clever in his village. He was chosen to receive an education which most children would have been denied at that time under the Tsar’s autocratic or dictatorial system. He went to the local junior seminary for trainee priests in the Russian Orthodox Church which was the only place to get any real education at that time. While he was there, Stalin discovered radical ideas and first came into contact with the ideas of Communism and he left the seminary to become a full time revolutionary taking on the name ‘Stalin’ for reasons of security and because it sounded strong. He joined the fledgling Communist Party and was imprisoned by the Tsar’s forces on many occasions. Like thousands of other revolutionaries living in that very conservative society, Stalin was sent to prison in the Urals and Siberia, escaping five times and making his way back to the west of Russia. He never really showed that he had any original ideas or exhibited behaviour that suggested he would become one of the most famous people of the century.

Stalin’s journey to power started slowly and progressed slowly. He first met Lenin at the ‘Workers’ Hall’ in Tampere, Finland, in 1905 and went on to attend various Communist Party conferences in the years before the Russian Revolution (1917). He was not part of Lenin’s circle of friends and advisers, partly because Lenin was so much more educated and sophisticated than Stalin, the rough peasant. He played no real role in the two Revolutions of 1917 that came to establish Communism in the country, arriving to join in the chaos of that year. It was following the arrival of Lenin in Russia between the two revolutions, and especially in the aftermath of the ‘October Revolution’, that Stalin was to find his key role. Not only was Stalin diligent, organised and hard-working, he was also blessed with an almost photographic memory and total loyalty to Lenin and the Communist Party. While Lenin thought and planned, others argued over theory and strategy, looking inward and upward within the Party structures. Meanwhile, Stalin was left to do the dull, tedious work as General Secretary of the Communist Party, the lowest role on the Politburo, the main council of seven members, but a role which would, in time, create the power base from which he would control Party and the country, so changing the course of history. Stalin’s work involved allocating party membership cards, writing letters, arranging agendas and distributing minutes. He was the ‘dull’ man who was almost laughed at by the ‘intellectuals’ in the party, keeping his place simply because Lenin found him useful. How people can be underestimated.

568px-Lenin

A true genius or the face of a madman? – Lenin, real name ‘Vladimir Ilych Ulyanov’ (1870-1924) (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

Stalin’s role as General Secretary of the Party was crucial for various reasons, most of all for the role he had as the one who distributed the membership cards of the Communist Party. He became the known name for party members around the country, the first point of contact in Moscow. These cards were issued each year so people came to rely on approval from Comrade Stalin to stay in the ‘good books’. He might not have any ideological ideas but Stalin had power on a practical level; the membership card meant access to meetings and access to certain privileges. Over the years, Stalin was able to promote or reject people as he saw fit. He could decide who came to Moscow to present the views of the party from each region. He knew the outsiders, those far from Moscow and Petrograd/Leningrad. He knew the secrets, like a Chief Whip in UK politics. While his colleagues on the Politburo argued on ideology and debated over policy, Stalin just listened and watched and remembered; Lenin controlled everything anyway so debate was futile but it might not always be the case. And what the likes of Trotsky, the apparent heir to Lenin and the strongest members of the politburo, never realised was that Stalin really was a force to be reckoned with, a man with a plan if the opportunity ever came his way.

Things changed dramatically in Russia after the ‘October Revolution’. Lenin was the pre-eminent leader of Communism and everyone deferred to him but neither he nor the Party was able to establish Communism overnight. Chaos reigned in that huge country which had been struggling to modernise for several decades before under the rule of the Tsars. Russia was far behind the Western Powers economically and this was impacting on their fighting of the Great War where they had struggled in combating the vastly superior German Army for three years on the ‘Eastern Front’. 1.8 million men had died and there was no prospect of victory. With the Communist belief that the war was based on capitalist and nationalistic fervour, Lenin believed the war had to end. It was wrong that Imperialists were sacrificing the people for their own ends. The war ended promptly for Russia when the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk was signed in February 1918, with Leon Trotsky negotiating on behalf of Russia. Land was lost to Germany and reparations had to be paid but many celebrated the end of what had been a horrible war for Russians everywhere but especially on the front line.

Trotsky was the obvious leader in waiting, if one was needed, in the years after the Revolution. He strengthened his position by creating and leading the Red Army to victory over the Whites (the Mensheviks and other opponents of the Bolsheviks) in the Russian Civil War (1918-21). This was a war which saw the Western Powers send soldiers and resources to try to defeat the Communists, something Stalin never forgot. But Lenin was relatively young, just 47 at the time of the Revolution, so there was no real need to consider what would happen in the coming years and who should succeed him. But in 1918, there was an assassination attempt on Lenin, who was badly wounded with one bullet remaining lodged in his head. Miraculously, he survived but he was never as strong again and after 1922 began to suffer a series of serious strokes. He was left unable to speak for the last year of his life before finally dying in January 1924. Lenin was just 53.

Lenin-last-photo

Lenin shortly before his death. His wife, Krupskaya, is behind the chair. (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

There had been no heir designated by Lenin and Trotsky was a man with too many enemies to be able to assume power. Rather than an individual, it was decided that the Politburo was to rule instead. However, there were serious tensions within the group, things which had remained in check while Lenin dominated everything but were now able to come to the surface. There were tensions between the right and left wings of the party over the nature and the pace of revolution; there was distrust of Trotsky, the former Menshevik turned Bolshevik; there was concern about how far Lenin’s reforms should be carried forward, especially those that had involved compromise with capitalism, such as the ‘New Economic Policy’. Lenin allowed the so called ‘Nepmen’ to operate in the USSR as a way of keeping the economy going in the troubled years of the Civil War. They were allowed to operate businesses, set wages and even make some profit which would later cause major ideological divisions to arise within the Politburo. But there was another aspect to Lenin’s legacy which had to be handled in a rather more urgent and practical way.

In his final years, Lenin had kept a record of many of his thoughts about his colleagues, including Stalin. This book of his writings and thoughts was known as ‘Lenin’s Testament’. At his death, this had been left with his wife, Nadya Krupskaya (1869-1939), but a copy had found its way to Stalin thanks to his control of people around Lenin, who included one of his secretaries. The document was to be addressed at a meeting of the General Council of the Communist Party but before this it was to be considered by the Politburo itself. It turned out that, in one way or another, ‘Lenin’s Testament’ attacked most of the Politburo, including Trotsky, Bukharin, Zinoviev, Kamenev and Pyatokov. However, Lenin’s strongest and clearest attacks were reserved for the General Secretary, Stalin, heavily criticising him for great rudeness towards Krupskaya. Lenin made it clear that Stalin had such a dark side that he should never be allowed to wield power within the Communist Party. Stalin should have been kicked out there and then but the threat of attacks on the reputations of the rest of the group saved him; Stalin had an extraordinary piece of luck as they took the decision that ‘Lenin’s Testament’ was not to be published and was not even considered by the General Council. Stalin survived and how the others would come to regret it.

The Politburo ruled the USSR for several years until Stalin became leader in 1928. This simple statement needs some explanation as it has already been said how marginal a figure Stalin was in the leadership. Stalin had got lucky in 1924 and in the following years he benefited from being under-estimated by the rest of the Politburo. The other six men persisted in seeing Stalin as dull and irrelevant, a man who had no originality, no ideas, nothing to offer intellectually. He voted one way or the other without seeming to understand the issues or the details. Stalin was the pen-pusher, the stamp –licker, the meetings-man, the minute-taker; he was dull. But behind the scenes things had happened that were sifting the balance of power in the USSR. Out of sight of the Politburo which had turned inward to debate and argue with each other about the vision and the policies, Stalin was building a support base where it mattered; he was shaping the Party itself for his own ends. Stalin was still the name that the ordinary people knew and needed in Moscow. He sent (or did not send) the membership cards, he confirmed appointments, he directed people to attend one council (‘soviet’) or another. Stalin had the power to make a practical difference and over the years he manipulated people into positions where they could be made to support him and his plans. By 1926-7, he was growing in confidence to the point where he felt able to act.

As he began his move for power, Stalin first focused on isolating his arch enemy Leon Trotsky and the left-wingers by siding with the right-wing over issues linked with the pace and nature of economic change and the future path of the revolution. In this debate, ‘World Revolution’, the radical idea favoured by Trotsky, lost out to the more conservative idea of ‘Communism in One State’, which was favoured by the right wing of the Politburo. Stalin had no real views of his own on this but he sided with Bukharin, the most popular figure on the Politburo, and the rest of the right-wing to defeat and oust Trotsky and the Left-wing members. Trotsky was isolated and was ultimately forced to leave the Politburo and, eventually, went into exile.

Having apparently shown he was a supporter of the right, Stalin was then trusted by them but this proved to be a mistake as Stalin was nothing of the sort. His actions had been for his own benefit and soon he turned his attentions to achieving total power by removing Bukharin and the right wing, positioning himself more to the left with the support of the new members he had helped promote to power. Stalin had influenced promotions to all the ‘soviets’ below the Politburo and so he was able to bring in his own people even at that level. Stalin ousted the right-wingers in 1928 and was established as the leading figure in the USSR. In those early years, Stalin was far from secure in power but he would survive, transforming the Soviet Union during the 25 years of dictatorial power which he enjoyed until his death from a stroke in March 1953.

There is a huge amount written about Stalin and it’s all fascinating stuff, so here there will only be mention of a few events that touch on his extraordinary life. Any research undertaken on Stalin is always fascinating and disturbing so be warned.

In 1928, Joseph Stalin became leader of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. The country had been formally established in December 1922, covering a similar area to the former Russian Empire which had been one of the ‘Great Powers’ but one which had been isolated for centuries under the rule of the Tsars. It was a huge country by area covering about 1/10th of the world’s land mass and stretching across 5000 miles from the Polish border to the Pacific Ocean. The USSR had a relatively large population of about 130 million people but it was a backward, peasant economy. Karl Marx’s prophesy had been that that Communism would first arise in an advanced industrial society and this was not the way to describe the USSR in 1917.

When Stalin came to power, he said the USSR was a hundred years behind the West industrially and had to make good that difference within 10-15 years or it would be destroyed. Stalin’s strategy for addressing this was the first of the ‘Five-Year Plans’ which was launched in 1928. Industry and farming were to be overhauled rapidly with a particular focus on heavy industries, such as mining and steel production. This in turn would develop transport, power and military strength, a key concern in the light of Russia’s history. The revolution in agriculture was to come through ‘Collectivisation’ which would create massive industrial farms and so replace the millions of small, inefficient, peasant-run, subsistence farms of Russia’s past. Things had to change at an astonishing speed and on a massive scale across the USSR.

The outcome of that first ‘Five-Year Plan’ was the beginning of the transformation of the Soviet economy and society. It would see the start of industrial cities like Magnitogorsk, the massive growth of the industrial workforce and the arrival of the tractor in the countryside. The USSR would join Germany as the only economic success stories of the decade of the ‘Depression’ which followed the Wall Street Crash but the costs would be enormous. A whole tradition of farming would be wiped out in those years, as nearly all farmland came under the ‘collectives’ but it would devastate many areas and see the near wiping out of the most successful and talented peasant farmers, the Kulaks, and the horrid effect of the Ukrainian Famine of 1932-33.

Chelyabinsk_tractor_factory_1930s

Soviet tractors in the 1930s. Some children were called ‘Tractor’ in honour of this vital machine. (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

GolodomorKharkiv

Victims of the Ukrainian famine lie on the streets of Kharkiv. Over seven million people died in total.  (Author: Unknown: Source: here)

How did such a huge famine devastate the Ukraine, such a rich and fertile region, which was the leading grain producing area of the USSR? Stalin had decided to use grain as a way of trading with the West so as to acquire key technology and resources for industrialisation. As grain production fell in 1932, Stalin actually increased the demand for grain to be exported, blatantly putting the people at risk but maintaining industrial development in the process. Stalin watched on as between six and seven million Ukrainians died in the name of ‘progress’. And he added in a few extra deaths by attacking local politicians and the intelligentsia so as to crush nationalist ambitions. How many people in the West ever hear of the ‘Ukrainian Famine’? Think on the number of deaths – up to seven million people in little more than a year. That is a frightening statistic and one which is appallingly reminiscent of the number of Jews killed in the Holocaust yet little is made of it in the West. But maybe it was just ‘too far away’ for people to know or care?

To drive industrialisation forward, the Five-Year Plans were based on a system of quotas and targets, something which traditionally brings corruption and manipulation in its wake. Each factory would receive its quota and each manager would be held responsible for the results. Corruption was rife as each manager aimed to meet or exceed the targets. Train drivers would be bribed to deliver goods to a particular factory, quality control was ignored in the race for quantity (the first tractors had to be pulled off the production lines as they did not work) and numbers were simply falsified. This led to an enormous number of deaths and imprisonments, as people who failed, questioned the system or challenged the results were ‘removed’. Thousands suffered by being accused of sabotage as managers and workers looked for people to blame for problems with machinery or the quality of goods. The quota system created a monstrous conspiracy of lies and deceit at every level as people tried not just to progress but to stay alive. It was far easier to blame a worker for breaking a machine than having to say that the machines were rubbish or that the system was flawed. A culture of fear and anxiety dominated Soviet society throughout the era of the Five-Year Plans, especially in the period before the ‘Great Patriotic War’ as the Soviets knew WWII.

The problems around quotas and targets became even worse in 1935 when Alexei Stakhanov, a miner, set an extraordinary record for digging coal. It was achieved thanks to a whole range of aid given to him, but Stakhanov’s achievement in mining 227 tonnes of coal in one shift, some 30 times over his target, made him a national hero and created a new movement. The ‘Stakhanovites’ were the heroes of the Soviet Union, warriors who helped build a great future through their energy and skill. Everyone was now capable of going beyond the targets if they really wanted to. The fact that it was all largely the result of cheating and manipulation did not matter and the propaganda element proved to be powerful in encouraging even more ‘target breaking’. It also meant even more silence from those who did not believe in the process and a strengthening of the cult of Stalin as the great leader. Who was going to challenge the achievements of the great Stakhanov even if they knew he had been given the best equipment, unlimited power and a team of men to collect his coal? People wanted to live and soon every manager was trying to create a new ‘Stakhanov’ in his factory.

800px-Stakhanov (1)

Alexey Grigoryevich Stakhanov – Hero of Socialist labour (1906-1977). The very clean and heroic Stakhanov explains his technique to a fellow miner.  (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

But there was serious tension and fear in the Kremlin and in Stalin’s mind in the early years of industrialisation. Stalin was not secure in his position as leader of the USSR. In 1934, at the 17th Party Congress, the so-called ‘Congress of Victors’, a leading Communist from Leningrad, Sergei Kirov, received high levels of support and emerged as a rival to Stalin. Kirov received only three negative votes regarding his membership of the Politburo while Stalin received 267, more than anyone else. This was all covered up by Stalin who arranged for the removal of his negative votes but Kirov, a handsome and popular man, was clearly a potential rival. On 1st December, 1934, Kirov was assassinated at the Communist Party offices in Leningrad. Stalin’s involvement was always suspected but not directly proven.

One thing which is clear is that the 17th Congress marked a change in Stalin. Nearly all those who attended the Congress would be killed or imprisoned during the ‘Great Purges’ of 1936-38, the systematic attempt by Stalin to kill all potential enemies and rivals, create a climate of fear and loyalty and to ensure his place of absolute power. The purges saw a wholesale attack on the Communist Party itself. In total, nearly a million people would be killed, imprisoned or ‘removed’, meaning over a third of the total membership of the Party was wiped out. Most famously, Stalin’s paranoia led to the ‘Show Trials’ and executions of some of the most high-profile members of the Party, including old colleagues and famous names of the revolution. Bukharin, Rykov, Kamenev and Zinoviev, old Bolsheviks who had played leading roles in 1917, would be among those forced in to humiliating admissions of betrayal while on trial, before being executed as enemies of Mother Russia. But the attacks focused on others, too, including the Army, the Navy, the Air Force, the Church, ethnic minorities and ordinary people. It was truly a reign of terror, a time which saw the deaths and imprisonment of millions of people. The numbers involved were even more frightening than those who suffered under Hitler and the Nazis at the same time in Germany.

Canal_Mer_Blanche

Prisoners at work in an early gulag, building the Belomorkanal, 1932. (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

These dreadful events were just part of the dark-side of Joseph Stalin’s actions. The plus side was to be that he became ‘Uncle Joe’, Churchill’s name for him in his role as one of the ‘Big Three’. Stalin was one of the three Allied leaders of World War II, with President Franklin Roosevelt of the USA and Britain’s Prime Minister, Winston Churchill. Stalin played a pivotal role by leading the USSR to victory in what is known as ‘The Great Patriotic War, 1941-45’. His ruthless policies of industrialisation proved to be essential for victory in the war and the people of the USSR made huge sacrifices in achieving the defeat of Nazism. In all, an estimated 27 million people from the Soviet Union died in winning the war. When measured against the total deaths in the war, an estimated 58-70 million, the significance is clear; at least a third of all deaths in the conflict were suffered by the USSR. When compared with estimates for deaths suffered by the other Allies, the numbers become even more important: Britain – 450 000 deaths, France – 560 000 and the USA – 410 000. World War II was effectively won in the USSR and not in Western Europe. The saying is that the war was won with ‘American money and Russian blood’, and there is a lot of truth in it.

But the figures hide some of the story as many of the Soviet deaths were really down to Stalin himself. There was a policy of brutality towards his own soldiers so that many were sacrificed in the cause of victory. Soldiers were sent in to battle without weapons, being told to pick up the guns of fallen comrades to carry on fighting; retreat was not allowed, the punishment being that soldiers were to be shot; soldiers were sent into battle simply to die, the theory being that the German Army would run out of ammunition in killing more and more people; there was little effort made in saving lives on the battlefield or to giving medical treatment to the wounded as this cost money and time. The horrible truth is, though, that against huge odds, especially at the three great battles for Moscow, Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) and Stalingrad (now Volgograd), the USSR emerged victorious and turned the tide against the Nazis in the east. There were many vital moments in World War II, such as the Battle of Britain, Pearl Harbor and D-Day, but the events which probably have the greatest claim to being ‘the’ turning point were those Russian victories that defended the cities of Leningrad, Moscow and Stalingrad. And those millions of Soviet deaths undoubtedly saved the lives of uncountable numbers of people in the West. Every allied country benefited from Stalin’s approach.

Stalingrad_aftermath

One corner of Stalingrad shows the astonishing damage suffered during the greatest battle in history, ‘The Battle of Stalingrad, 1942-43’. (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

There are many other things that could be written about Stalin: the infamous Nazi-Soviet Pact, the cult of personality, the role of the secret police and others being just a few. ‘Uncle Joe’ was a paranoid psychopath really and hardly the type of man to be stuck in a lift with. He was probably responsible for the deaths of well over 30 million people (estimates range from 10 million to 60 million) and that really is a lot of people for a man who is somewhat ignored by some people today. But, in many ways, Stalin’s policies were effective and can even be considered successful, despite the horrendous costs, because the USSR did industrialise in the 1930s so that it could just survive the Nazi attack of 1941 and so play the pivotal role in the Allied victory. This is one of the most horrid truths in modern history, namely, that Nazism was defeated because of Stalin; millions of people in the West are alive today because of Stalin; millions of people in the former USSR are not alive today because of Stalin. And yet he is a peripheral figure for many Westerners while being adored by many people in Russia so that there have been several attempts to re-instate him as a true hero of Russian history.

There is much more to be said about Joseph Stalin than can be covered here. The shock and out-pouring of grief at the announcement of his death on 5th March, 1953, was quite extraordinary. People across the USSR were stunned into disbelief as their great leader of the last quarter century was gone. Tears flowed across the nation, even in the gulags where so many thousands had been unjustly imprisoned by Stalin himself. The politburo was thrown into confusion and a power struggle ensued from which Nikita Khrushchev would eventually emerge as leader. The USSR was, of course, profoundly changed by Stalin’s death and so was the world, a world in which the nation transformed under Stalin was a Superpower, the leader of the Communist world. Relations with the USA and China, for example, developed a whole new dynamic following the death of Stalin – and it was not always a safer place or a calmer relationship.

Stalin_Grave

Stalin’s body was embalmed and laid next to that of Lenin from 1953 to 1961. It was then removed and buried in the walls of the Kremlin as part of the process of ‘De-Stalinisation’. (Author: Graham Colm; Source: here)

 

Joseph Stalin was, above all, a winner and a survivor, the man who turned the USSR from a backward peasant state in 1928 to a Superpower with the atomic bomb in 1949. But being a winner does not always make you good so please remember Iosif Vissarionovich Djughashvili, Joseph Stalin, the ‘Man of Steel’, when people go on about the worst man in history; Hitler does have competition.

 

Find out more

Books: ‘Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar’ (2007) and ‘The Young Stalin’ (2008), both by Simon Sebag Montefiore. Both are easy and exciting reads that serve as excellent introductions to Stalin.

Books: ‘The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin’s Russia’ by Orlando Figes.

Books: ‘Stalin’ by Robert Service. Generally seen as the definitive biography of the evil genius.

Books: ‘A day in the life of Ivan Denisovich’ by Alexander Solzhenitsyn. The famous book telling the story of life in the gulags through the life of one inmate.

Books: ‘The Forsaken’ by Tim Tzouliadis. A little known study of the Americans who emigrated to the USSR and suffered in the 1930s and 1940s.

Books: ‘Gulag’ by Anne Applebaum. A fascinating and powerful study of the whole system of the gulags.

TV: ‘The Cold War’ (CNN) The outstanding documentary by Jeremy Isaacs has numerous episodes that tell the story of Stalin and the Cold War.

TV: ‘World War II – Behind Closed Doors’

TV: ‘The World at War’ and ‘The People’s Century’