This is an essay I wrote for a module I’m taking this semester, I’m a bit wary of posting essays online for fear of it being flagged up as a false-positive case of plagiarism by the turnitin system. Thankfully I’m not the only person posting up my coursework online and it’s still okay for people to copy this work so long as I’m attributed as the author and they don’t try to profit off it.
Firstly I will establish what we mean when we talk about Leninism and Stalinism. Leninism is not a comprehensive ideology in itself, which is why it’s often paired with Marxism as Marxism-Leninism. It updates the Marxist critique of capitalism for more contemporary conditions and goes further in suggesting practical alternatives. This is understandable as Lenin was constantly engaging with the process of praxis by testing theory against practice and practice against theory.
Broadly we can characterise Lenin’s contributions to Marxism as an analysis of imperialism(Lenin, 1917), some contributions to the field of culture(Claudin-Urondo, 1977), an analysis of the role of the socialist state(Lenin, 1918), and a model of organisation under a vanguard party(“Constitution of the Communist Party of China,” 2006).
Stalinism is more difficult as its definition is contested. In its simplest form Stalinism is just a totalitarian form of socialism(Reichman, 1988), but that is too vague and can be used to describe almost all pre-existing socialist states. This overly broad definition was criticised by Gorbachev and led him to claim that “Stalinism is a concept thought up by the enemies of communism to discredit socialism as a whole”(Nahaylo, 1999). The surviving ideological currents of Stalinism have been absorbed into more comprehensive ideologies, such as National Bolshevism(Dugin, n.d.), or been modified to form Maoism, Juche or Hoxhaism. In light of this I will try to restrict Stalinism down to onlythe policies and ideas pursued by the Soviet Union during Stalin’s leadership.
In using such a definition I’ve already accepted that Stalinism was, at least to some extent, a historically distinct and specific phenomenon. It can be understood as a result of its historical context, for example the rapid drive to industrialisation has been explained as as a necessary stage in the development of the Soviet Union(Nove, 1964). The argument also goes that without industrialisation the Soviet Union might have struggled to defeat the fascist invasion during the Great Patriotic War, thus elevating the industrialisation of the economy to an existential question of national defence. In this case Stalinism was not the personal idea of Stalin, instead it was the only logical course of action in the circumstances. Tucker(1977) does imply that this is the case, but fails to qualify it. It is better backed up by Ellenstein(1978), who said
“When you think of the Stalin phenomenon during the war, what strikes one as extraordinary is that millions of soviet men and women, who had been victims of Stalinist terror, played a heroic part in the struggle of the soviet people. Why had their loyalty not been destroyed? Why indeed had the Soviet Union not disintegrated under the combined blows of Stalin’s rule and Nazi attack? Because the basis of the Soviet state was socialist and in most respects independent of the policies of the men who ruled it”
It’s important to emphasise this common theme being drawn between Ellenstein, Nove and Tucker, that Stalin’s personality and even his ideas are somewhat irrelevant. If this is the case then Stalinism is relevant to Leninism only in the sense that Leninism shaped the conditions in which Stalinism emerged.
So what conditions do define the Stalinist epoch? The Soviet Union faced a constant threat of invasion from the imperialist countries, the same as during Lenin’s time. What changed was the character of capitalism. From the mid-1930s onwards the ‘most imperialist elements of finance capital’(Dimitrov, 1935)moved across Europe to replace bourgeois democracy with fascism. I doubt Lenin would have predicted the Soviet Union would join forces with the imperialist countries to defeat fascism. However, Lenin theorised that imperialism was ‘decaying capitalism’(Lenin, 1916) tending towards monopolisation, and we can take fascism as a more advanced stage of this process(Palme, 1935). In this way Stalin’s anti-fascism flows directly from Lenin’s theory of imperialism.
Another feature of the Stalinist epoch was the need to maintain internal stability, hence the purges of state institutions and retaliations against the kulaks. It can be argued that these measures actually created more chaos and instability than to begin with.
However, the intention of the policy was to take full control of the countryside and to guarantee the unity of the Communist Party. The influence of Trotskyism was particularly worrying as it had potential to split the party. It’s also clear that the party was deeply affected by the Tukhachevsky plot(Emelianov, 2012) and that this underlined the significant danger of allowing anticommunist elements to infiltrate its ranks.
How was this a continuation of Leninism? There were some internal party purges in May 1920, under Lenin’s leadership(Maximov, 1950), but these were not on the scale of Yezhov’s purges in the late 1930s. With regards to the army the dismissal of some high ranking officers might have made the red army weaker, but from Stalin’s perspective it just opened up more opportunities for promotion of potentially more talented people from the lower ranks(Stalin, 1939). He also brings up the fact that there was an issue of education in the higher ranks of the party, state and military. While some cadres were committed communists, they lacked good political education. This was different from Lenin’s pre-revolutionary Bolshevik party whose cadres were generally well educated in Marxist theory.
Now I’ll come to Stalinism as an ideological continuation of Leninism, or more accurately Marxism-Leninism. Brar(1993) wrote a preface to Stalin’s original ‘Trotskyism or Leninism?’(1924) in which he went further than Stalin to argue that the Trotskyist line of ‘permanent revolution’ against ‘socialism in one country’ is anti-Leninist. Brar very briefly mentions a speech to the Moscow Sovietin which Lenin talks about the need to build socialism in Russia, to build a socialist nation(Lenin, 1922). This breaks down the notion of Lenin as internationalist versus Stalin as nationalist. The debate also needs a clarification of terms, internationalism is the interaction between nations, and as such internationalism is not the opposite of nationalism and the two concepts can be harmoniously reconciled.What we do know is that by the end of the civil war Lenin was well aware that communist movements in the wake of 1917 had failed to hold state power, and thus ‘socialism in one country’ was the only logical course of action for both Lenin and Stalin.
Stalin(1954) also defended his position and checked it against Marxism-Leninism by arguing that Leninism is a universal theory which applies to the proletariat. This was in response to Zinoviev who wanted to introduce the peasantry as the ‘main thing’ of Leninism. Zinoviev would imply that Leninism can be separated from Marxism and suggests that Marxism-Leninism is not the model for developed capitalist countries who don’t have a large peasantry. Taking this further Stalinism is only the application of Marxism-Leninism to Russia, and that one of the ‘main things’ of Marxism-Leninism-Stalinism is the necessary development of an industrial proletariat.
Lastly I will evaluate whether Stalinism actually represents a break from Leninism. Taking a holistic approach Lenin’s overall strategy was ‘a strategic zigzag from left to right’ in pursuit of the victory of the revolution(Žižek, 2002). He swung wildly from War Communism to the New Economic Policy and wasn’t afraid to steer the revolution through risky and dangerous political territory. This is counterpoised with Stalin whose overall strategy was centrist, one of taking a steady course and correcting any deviations to the left or the right. Stalin’s centrism can also be seen in the Stalinist need for stability and order in society.
Trotsky’s argument(Trotsky, 1937) claims that after Stalin took power he centralised power in the state bureaucracy and turned the Soviet Union into a Bonapartist state. Cliff(1974) has taken it further to claim that capitalist relations of production had been restored in the Soviet Union and that the workers state had degenerated to the point of state capitalism. The same argument is also presented slightly differently from the Maoist perspective after the period of Khrushchevite revisionism(1968). Essentially it goes that the managers and bureaucrats formed a new class, able to assert control over the means of production by abusing the principle of the dictatorship of the proletariat. This new class then acted like capitalists, engaging in profit-seeking and competition with other enterprises. The new capitalist state also collaborated with imperialist countries in its foreign policy, for example the negotiation with the imperialist powers for control of Europe after the Great Patriotic War.
I find this argument too simplistic as it ignores the formal instruments put in place by the Soviet Union to strengthen the democratic control of Labour over Capital. It also refuses to take into account the socialist nature of the Soviet state.
In conclusion I think Stalinism was a specific phenomenon which did flow directly from Leninism, but was also deeply influenced by the historical conditions of the time.
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The marker mentioned that I should’ve put page numbers in the in-line citations. The page numbers are there, they’re just hidden down in the bibliography. On that point the standard Harvard bibliography style I used didn’t originally include urls, and since handing in the essay I’ve discovered the ‘official’ Harvard style for Brookes which includes urls in the bibliography, so I’ve used that here. I didn’t cite the Stalin Society but they were quite helpful in pointing me to stuff written by Harpal Brar. Jean Ellenstein was a eurocommunist and he had a great book called ‘the Stalin phenomenon’, unfortunately when I came to write the essay all the copies of it in the library were taken out, so I’ve quoted him here in another book about eurocommunism which all the other students ignored.
I think that’s everything I wanted to say, this essay got a first, and I’m quite proud of it.