Tuesday, 8 June 2010

Does Opening Soviet Archives Really Provide A New Insight Into Stalin’s Mind

Once upon a time, unintentionally,And probably hazarding a guess,Hegel called the historian a prophet,Predicting in reverse.
B. Pasternak

No man can have in his mind a conception of the future, for the future is not yet. But of our conceptions of the past, we make our future.

Thomas Hobbes

A recent article by the writer Sherwood Ross claims the opening of the Soviet archives provides an insight into the mind of Josef Stalin. Ross says “Historians today are only coming to understand the complex and sophisticated individual that was Joseph Stalin, who ruled Russia for nearly thirty years until his death in 1953. Much of the information shedding light on the character of the dictator is being unearthed from the archives of the Soviet Union, opened in the 1990s after the collapse of Communism, and which is the source material for a series of some 25 books titled The Annals of Communism, published by Yale University Press. Now Jonathan Brent, former editorial director of the Press, has written a companion “Inside The Stalin Archives” to help get at what he terms is “a true understanding of one of the giant phenomena of the 20th century” that was Soviet Communism”.

Despite the reams of books that have recently come out regarding the rise of Soviet communism it must be said that they are largely worthless and do not give any new insight into the complex and controversial subject of Soviet Communism in fact as the great Oscar Wilde might have said of them they seem ‘know the price of everything yet the value of nothing’. In fact one reading of the Revolution Betrayed by the leading Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky would garner more insight into the rise of the Stalinist bureaucracy than hundreds of others produced from the archives.

One worthwhile thing Brent did say in the interview was “that understanding the archives is vital not only for political and educational reasons but for “the moral education of our children and of future generations.” While agreeing with this the historians using the archives are largely seeking two things to bolster the image of Josef Stalin and to attack the political legacy of Leon Trotsky. Some historians such as Robert Service would like to go further and kill Trotsky all over again.

In his interview Brent starts to rehabilitate Stalin when he says “To begin with, people err who dismiss Stalin as some sort of paranoid madman. The man was not a criminal who personally beat, tortured, or shot people, even if he was responsible for the deaths of millions of human beings. He didn't, himself, torture people, not like Ivan the Terrible who threw people out the window, who killed his own son. He was a highly functional individual who was also a man of simple tastes and the father of three children “who did not believe that he was constrained by any moral law, because all moral laws were relative to him,” Brent says. Stalin would never criticize things on the basis that they were bad or approve them because they were good”.
Brent’s attempt to absolve Stalin from the murderess purges does not hold water and he relies on people’s ignorance of the subject. “Vadim Rogovin who was a Doctor of philosophical Sciences at the Institute of Sociology of the Russian Academy of Sciences “outlines that Stalin and a group of leading Bolsheviks in the Politburo, Molotov, Kaganovich, Voroshilov and Yezhov, ran the purges. Rogovin produces substantial archival evidence and supporting material garnered from the 20th Communist Party Congress outlining the crucial role that Stalin and the others played in party expulsions, arrests and murders. These sections of the book refute people like Brent and the revisionist school of Sovietology. This new genre of historiography seeks to query or dismiss the assertion that the Great Purge was personally controlled by Stalin and that he agreed totally with the results.

Whether Stalin was a madman or not is open to debate, this should be decided by psychiatrists but this misses the point.

As Leon Trotsky said in the “The Role of Personality “Our author substitute’s mechanistic determinism for the dialectic conditioning of the historical process. Hence the cheap jibes about the role of individuals, good and bad. History is a process of the class struggle. But classes do not bring their full weight to bear automatically and simultaneously. In the process of struggle the classes create various organs which play an important and independent role and are subject to deformations. This also provides the basis for the role of personalities in history. There are naturally great objective causes which created the autocratic rule of Hitler but only dull-witted pedants of “determinism” could deny today the enormous historic role of Hitler. The arrival of Lenin in Petrograd on April 3, 1917 turned the Bolshevik party in time and enabled the party to lead the revolution to victory. Our sages might say that had Lenin died abroad at the beginning of 1917, the October revolution would have taken place “just the same.” But that is not so. Lenin represented one of the living elements of the historical process. He personified the experience and the perspicacity of the most active section of the proletariat. His timely appearance on the arena of the revolution was necessary in order to mobilize the vanguard and provide it with an opportunity to rally the working class and the peasant masses. Political leadership in the crucial moments of historical turns can become just as decisive a factor as is the role of the chief command during the critical moments of war. History is not an automatic process. Otherwise, why leaders? Why parties? Why programs? Why theoretical struggles?”

 Brent then attempts to understand the reason behind the launching of the Great Terror.” “Stalin’s lack of a moral compass enabled him to launch in the mid-Thirties what became known as The Great Terror, during which, in 1937 alone, one million Soviet citizens were arrested and, of those, one-third put to death. Stalin claimed he did this to purge the nation of “Trotskyites,” followers of Red Army architect Leon Trotsky who split with Stalin and took refuge in Mexico---where Stalin had him assassinated in 1940. But a lot of the charges against the accused were “pure hokum,”

While the charges were as Brent says “pure hokum” but his dismissal of the opposition to Stalin is careless and wrong. According to Vadim Rogovin the political aims of the Terror were the destroying of all socialist opposition to Stalin’s rule are, ignored or dismissed by much of the Western Sovietology written on the subject.

A true picture of the events in the Soviet Union using archive material would be an important service not only to western readers but to the general Russian population who even today know next to nothing of the great struggle between Trotsky and Stalin.
Another important insight by Rogovin was he saw the relationship between Stalin’s repression and the growth of social inequality in the USSR. In the introduction to the book 1937: Stalin’s Year of Terror By Vadim Z. Rogovin the writer makes the point “This relationship, Rogovin concluded, was essential to understanding the nature of the Stalinist regime. Based on a study of historical documents, Rogovin came to view the Left Opposition, which emerged in 1923 under the leadership of Trotsky, as a socialist alternative to the anti-egalitarianism of Stalin’s bureaucratic regime”.


Perhaps Brent's most bizarre comment comes in his attempt to dissuade his public “that “Stalin was not necessarily anti-Semitic”, you notice that by using the word necessarily he is not too convinced of his own assertion. Brent says. “In May, 1939, he arrested the famous Jewish writer Isaac Babel and had him executed eight months later. This, however, was not because Babel was Jewish per se, but rather because Stalin could use him to send a message to Hitler “that he knows what to do with Jews,” Brent says. It also served to send a message his Politburo “about how he is going to deal with the problems of Germany and the Jews.” Babel’s execution served a “useful purpose” in Stalin’s mind. Similarly, Stalin demoted Maxim Litvinov, a Jew, in May, 1939, not for anti-Semitic reasons but because he would not have a Jew negotiating with Nazi Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop. And when Stalin replaced Litvinov with Molotov, he used the fact that Molotov’s wife was Jewish to tease him as “Molotstein.” Later, when Stalin had Molotov’s wife purged from the Central Committee, Molotov was so fearful that he did not vote against the motion but only abstained”.

Brent’s trapeze act regarding Stalin’s pronounced Anti-Semitism is either a poor writing or something more sinister. Brent could have looked at other sources for help on this question. Vadim Rogovin includes an insightful chapter, “The Anti-Semitic Subtext of the Moscow Trials,” in his 1937. Stalin’s Year of Terror. [17] Also for deeper understanding of the Purges he could have consulted the above book for a deeper understanding of the Great Terror and the Moscow Trials.
Brent is not the only author to down play anti-Semitism. David North recently commented on Robert Services –biography Trotsky “One issue that undermines Service’s insistence on “Stalin the Marxist” is the question of Stalin’s anti-Semitism. By the time he addresses the issue directly (and very late in his book, page 567), Service has provided several clues in passing that Stalin might indeed be anti-Semitic. Here are a few examples: “Stalin differed from Lenin inasmuch as he never—not even once—commented on the need to avoid anti-Semitic impulses”[15] [p. 156]; “The Great Terror had removed hundreds of qualified personnel. Jews in particular were repressed” [p. 395]; “[In 1943], Alexander Fadeev, Chairman of the USSR Union of Writers, roundly condemned ‘rootless cosmopolitanism’... . Stalin was already playing with one of the grubbiest instruments of rule: anti-Semitism” [p. 447]; “As the harness of repression was imposed, Stalin strove to increase the degree of dependable compliance. He did this in line with his lurch into an anti-Jewish campaign in the USSR after he fell out with the Israeli government. Communist parties were constrained to select a Jew from among their midst, put him on show trial and execute him” [p. 518]; “But what was Stalin up to? Certainly he had it in for Jews from 1949, and his behaviour and discourse became ever cruder” [p. 519].

Perhaps the most insidious and malicious part of Brent’s interview is his attempt to portray Stalin as a “formidable Intellect” He states "Who was Stalin? What was Stalin? That became the driving impulse behind my work in Russia," Brent said. Stalin was the general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union's Central Committee from 1922 until his death in 1953. "He was a formidable intellect," Brent said, pointing to copies of Lenin's "The State and Revolution" and Trotsky's "History of the Russian Revolution" with Stalin's handwritten notes in the margin’s”.

“Examining Stalin's copy of Leon Trotsky's History of the Bolshevik Revolution, Brent found in Stalin's handwriting in the margins--phrases such as "this is not true, maybe this is true,” and so on and so forth all the way through. At the top of some pages, Stalin wrote 'lie, liar, and betrayer.' And then with his big blue pencil, he would just cross out of the book what Trotsky was saying." Pointing out that Stalin had no intimate friend to whom he confided his deepest thoughts and no lover to whom he wrote love letters, Stalin’s notations reveal who the man was "in the quiet of his own study at 4 a.m. when nobody is looking; we can see how his mind is working," Brent says. Trotsky was Stalin's hated enemy but Stalin nevertheless read Trotsky’s book because "he wanted to know what his hated enemy was thinking.”

In reality Stalin rarely understood anything and foresaw nothing. For Trotsky he was a typical bureaucrat and Trotsky described him as “the Party’s outstanding mediocrity”. His thought was largely empirical and he produced no outstanding piece of literature. Trotsky famously said that if “Stalin had known at that time where he would end up, he would not have gone ahead”.

Again in the introduction of 1937: Stalin’s Year of Terror by Vadim Z. Rogovin “Stalin’s fixation on Trotsky was not, Rogovin maintains, an incidental phenomenon that served little more than propaganda purposes. Rather, Stalin perceived the exiled Trotsky as the most significant threat to his dictatorship. He was the personification of a revolutionary program and tradition that the bureaucratic regime was determined to extirpate”.


Stalin’s Terror of 1937-1938: Political Genocide in the USSR, by Vadim Rogovin

1937: Stalin’s Year of Terror By Vadim Z. Rogovin – Introduction

Stalin’s Great Terror: Origins and Consequences By Vadim Rogovin 29 December 1998

Was there an alternative to Stalinism? By David North 25 October 1995

Historian offers glimpse inside the Stalin archives BY FRANZ BROTZEN

The Class, The Party and the Leadership-Leon Trotsky
Post a Comment