Joseph Stalin and the Left: Personal Reflections Occasioned by Stephen Kotkin’s Paradoxes of Power


More than any other historical figure . . . a biography of
Stalin . . . comes to approximate a history of the world.1
Stephen Kotkin.

Joseph Stalin – his life and his legacy – has been denigrated by the terms “Stalinism” and “Stalinist,” epithets that equate his purported adherents with an ideology that synthesizes authoritarianism, inhumanity, rule through bureaucracy, and cultist behavior.2 Arising out of this fetid concoction, Joseph Stalin (1878-1953) has been judged a monster, a golem whose depredations rank equal to, or even exceeding, those of Adolph Hitler. A corollary to this assertion conflates Communism with Nazism, thereby degrading history’s greatest movement for workers’ emancipation. Fearing being labeled “Stalinists,” remarkably few figures on the Left have raised their voices to denounce this outrageous comparison.

With one, or perhaps two, exceptions, Communist-led societies no longer exist and the mass parties that had defended their domestic and foreign policies either have been much reduced in size and influence or have disappeared entirely. Despite these colossal losses, the drumbeat of “anti-Stalinism” sounds louder and louder. Evidently, the remnants of this lost world and, even more so, its memory, continue to haunt capitalism.3

Stalin’s nearly thirty-year rule (1925 - 1953)—as leader of both the Soviet Union and the world Communist movement—is coterminous with the period of the greatest gains of socialism: the collectivization of agriculture and industrialization of the Soviet Union; the defeat of the Anti-Comintern Axis and its allies; the expansion of socialism until it embraced one-third of the world’s inhabitable surface; and its indispensable ideological and material assistance to the anticolonial and anti-imperialist movements. Attacks on Stalin perforce become attacks on socialism as it had been practiced in the Soviet Union and its allied states, whose economic and social character, with remarkably little variation, followed designs established during the Stalin Era. No other system of socialism has yet evolved, so attacks of the former socialist bloc and their association with Stalin readily morph into antisocialism, per se.4 The task of acknowledging the positive side of Stalin’s legacy as well as recognizing the constraints of capitalist encirclement are critical prerequisites for the creation of a political environment where socialism could once again be widely embraced.

Ironically, the impulse to reconsider Stalin’s position in the history of the Soviet Union and the wider world has not come from Left academics—even those motivated by a renewed interest in socialism; instead, it has been taken up by a growing number of academics without Left pedigrees.5 The most important of these revisionist biographies is a three-volume masterwork, by Stephen Kotkin, that has every potential for superseding all earlier biographies of Stalin. The first volume Stalin: Paradoxes of Power, 1878-1928 ,6 which studies his subject from his birth until the launching of enforced collectivization of agriculture and industrialization, elevates Stalin to a much larger and more positive place in the history of the twentieth century than standard biographies. The two subsequent volumes show how once Stalin had gained leadership he was able to first create a socialist economy and society, based on collectivized agriculture and industry, and then defend it from annihilation.7 Kotkin’s findings, unintentionally, have enormous import for the Left.8 The structure of Kotkin’s trilogy supports his basic argument:

[Stalin’s] cunning, his honing of organizational talents, would help transform the entire structural landscape of the early Bolshevik revolution from 1917. Stalin brutally, artfully, indefatigably built a personal dictatorship within the Bolshevik dictatorship. Then he launched and saw through, a bloody socialist remaking of the entire former empire, presided over a victory in the greatest war in human history, and took the Soviet Union to the epicenter of global affairs.9

Kotkin attributes Stalin’s motivations and his ability to act on them to his unshakable belief that the teachings of Karl Marx (1818-1883) and Vladimir Lenin (1870-1924), gave him the means, or, better perhaps, a method, capable of successfully guiding a vast socio-economic process to replace capitalism with socialism.10 It is through the prism of “Joseph Stalin, Marxist-Leninist” that Kotkin sets about establishing the veracity of his own interpretive narrative, while demolishing the underpinnings of preceding biographers’ interpretations: Stalin, the product of family neglect and brutality; Stalin, the country bumpkin; Stalin, the mediocrity; Stalin, the betrayer of Leninism; Stalin, the bureaucrat; Stalin, the megalomaniac. It is this subtext that makes Paradoxes of Power at once so rewarding and so difficult to digest. The explicit narrative reads smoothly, but implicitly Kotkin is demolishing the prevailing interpretations of Stalin as a world historical figure. If one reads attentively enough, one can hear these devaluing constructs fall like so many bowling pins.

While presenting Paradoxes of Power to a general audience, Kotkin declared, “This is not a speculative book.”11 Indeed! The authoritative sense of his book rests on the unprecedented availability of sources made possible by the collapse of the Soviet Union and Stephen Kotkin’s willingness and ability to use them. The book’s narrative rests atop a thick foundation of documents, newspaper clippings, personal letters, and secret-police reports. This is what gives the author’s statements such a sense of confidence.

One critical outcome of the author’s research is his assurance that Stalin and all the characters—major and minor—associated with these events are true believers in Marxism as interpreted by Lenin. The Mensheviks were Marxists qua Marxists. Unlike the Mensheviks, as Leninists, Stalin and his Bolshevik colleagues could conceive of taking state power without Russia traversing a prolonged period of capitalist economic development and social modernizing. Kotkin shows that Lenin saw Russia, as perhaps did Marx, as an exception to Marx’s “stageist” historiography. However, Kotkin misses that Stalin’s costly mishaps due to the Soviets’ policies in China resulted from his insistence that Communists maintain their alliances with the Kuomintang, who represented the owning classes, even while they were being massacred by their purported allies (617-651).

Kotkin does not explicitly follow up this well-known-yet-critical part of the story with its corollary. The Communists who seized power under these conditions would have to carry out the tasks of the bourgeoisie—the creation a nation state, universal literacy, abolition of feudal restraints on production, industrialization; nonetheless, in Paradoxes of Power, these topics are found in its narrative. In Paradoxes of Power and even more so in Stalin: Waiting for Hitler, Kotkin shows that Stalin is at the center of all these monumental events and at all times operating within a Marxist-Leninist framework.

Stalin’s Childhood

Kotkin allots considerable space to Stalin’s childhood. He shows, unlike other biographers, that the degree of deprivation Stalin experienced was not so severe as to either warp his psyche or distort his relationships. Stalin’s family lived in a makeshift house located in Gori, a commercial-artisanal crossroads and railroad junction that was populated, in addition to Georgians, by Armenians and Russians. His father, Besarian (Soso), the son of a serf, had mastered shoemaking, a highly skilled traditional craft, which was, more or less rapidly, being replaced by competition from machine-made shoes. Under hellish conditions, Soso was compelled to work in a shoe factory. At his side, his twelve-year-old son worked as a helper. Later in life, Stalin recalled, “My father was good enough to me.” Katerina (Keke), Stalin’s mother, who was also a descendant of serfs, worked as a washerwoman. She recognized that her son was not ordinary and fought hard to ensure he would receive an education. Intensifying her devotion to Josip was her tragic loss of her first two children, both sons, in childbirth. Beyond a most rudimentary level, education for a child of the working class, at that time and place, meant a seminary. As an only child, with two functioning parents, who was surrounded by an extended family, Stalin escaped the much harsher and insecure life common among many working-class children.

Often, Kotkin is excessively content to let the facts – of which he provides an extraordinary number – speak for themselves, rather than summing up and drawing out for the reader some of their meaning. For example, the cosmopolitan character of Gori prepared Stalin for leadership of the multi-ethnic Soviet Union, unlike his competitors who were ethnic Russians or thoroughly Russified members of other ethnic groups who lived in more homogeneous settings. It was not by accident that in 1917 the Councils of Soviets appointed Stalin Commissar of Nationalities, for a country that encompassed a population of 130 million people, only 44 percent if whom were ethnic Russians (125). Nonetheless, Kotkin understands well that key aspects of Stalin’s life that have repetitively been cited as disadvantages, in fact, represented advantages for someone seeking to guide a revolutionary process that would convert backward Russia into a workers’ state. Surely no other prominent Bolshevik leader had worked in a factory at his father’s side. As is well said in a recent intellectual biography of Lenin, describing the small circle of Lenin’s younger disciples, “Stalin, whose father was a manual laborer, counted as a rarity.”12

Up to this point, Stalin’s profile pointed toward his success as a local leader in an imagined future socialist Georgia. His enrolment in a Georgian Orthodox seminary would have prepared him for life in a remarkable culture that extended to only a few million persons. Fortuitously, the young Stalin’s enrollment in a Russian Orthodox seminary, that used Russian as the language of instruction and Old Church Slavonic as the liturgical language, destined him toward the vast arena of the Russian Empire. Consequently, Stalin mastered written and spoken Russian; however, he never lost his accent.13 As a poet of note in Georgian, he only published in Georgian until he was twenty-nine (10). (Stalin also had a good voice and was a valued member of the seminary’s choir.) Despite his mastery of Georgian language and culture, Stalin ceased speaking and writing Georgian. His adoption of the Russian culture and language for his public life was not qualitatively different than the decisions of the much more numerous working-class Jewish members in the leadership of the Bolsheviks, who similarly traded a Yiddish-based culture for the larger Russian culture, and similarly changed their identifiably Jewish names for Slavic-derived surnames.14

Kotkin embraces much of what detractors and admirers alike have long identified as Stalin’s salient characteristics—boldness, self-confidence, man-of-action, ability to attract loyal colleagues, and more. This banal mix, however, was predictive of no more than a warlord or an exceptionally effective local leader, not for someone who would achieve greatness. Among Stalin’s obvious traits, Kotkin adds one hitherto unremarked upon that may have enabled Stalin to become Stalin. He was, Kotkin says, “bookish.” In extending this tact, he adds: “[Stalin possessed] a tremendous dedication to self-improvement. He devoured books” (10). Stalin’s “bookishness,” his intellectuality, becomes a leitmotif of Paradoxes of Power. Later, Kotkin draws attention to Stalin’s library of ten thousand volumes, five hundred of which were heavily annotated. Kotkin presents an unknown Stalin, someone who was immersed in Russian literature. In the biography, he says Stalin’s favorite author was Anton Chekhov (1860-1904); in a televised talk subsequent to his book’s publication, he suggests it was Nicolai Gogol (1819-1996). During that same talk, he estimates that Stalin read 200 pages per day.15

Kotkin description of Stalin as an intellectual who was a product of a working-class environment matches the phenomenon of an “organic intellectual,” first identified by Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937) in reference to intellectuals who rise from but do not leave the working class. These figures, who Gramsci understood were rare, incorporate both the experience of the working class and the emancipatory theory of Marxism-Leninism. In Gramsci’s thesis, it is the organic intellectuals who possess the greatest potential for providing leadership for the workers and peasants.16

Stalin and His Rivals

Here we will examine a few themes and events that help explain how, in ten (or perhaps as few as six) short years, Stalin achieved pre-eminence over formidable rivals, whose credentials as theoreticians and political leaders outclassed those of the ex-seminarian bank robber from the frontiers of Russia. These erstwhile comrades jockeyed for position first as adjuncts of Lenin, and then continued their maneuvers after Lenin’s incapacitation in 1922 and death in 1924.

Despite the important positions they held in both the Bolshevik Party and the nascent Soviet state, Kotkin justifiably assigns Grigory Zinoviev (1883-1936) and Lev Kamenev (1883-1936), two early Bolsheviks who are generally grouped together, inconsequential roles in the tortuous, and ultimately bloody, struggle for power. When they appeared on the stage, they did so as tertiary figures, unable to act individually or to stand on their own platform, who allied themselves with one or another member of a triad consisting of Stalin, Nikolai Bukharin (1888-1938), and Leon Trotsky (1879-1940). Unlike his shadowy counterpart, Zinoviev held a highly visible and prestigious position: General Secretary of the Comintern. Later, he became the party leader of Leningrad. Kotkin shows that their caution and political maneuverings disqualified them as leaders of the Soviet State in the eyes of the delegates to the Party Conferences. This behavior might not have been fatal to their ambitions, except that it followed a pattern set when both publicly rejected Lenin’s call, as published in his April Theses, for a workers’ revolution to overthrow the Russian Provisional Government, which was established after the abdication of Tsar Nicolas II in March 1917. Further diminishing Zinoviev’s and Kamenev’s stature was their failure to write substantive works. Of course, they wrote newspaper articles and other short pieces, but this would not suffice for contenders for leadership in a Marxist-led party or country, where theory held a prized position. Once History dismissed Kamenev and Zinoviev, the struggle for power can be clearly seen as residing within boundaries set by Stalin, Bukharin, and Trotsky.

Kotkin is almost brutally dismissive of Leon Trotsky. Near the start of Paradoxes of Power, the author rises to swat down Trotsky’s dismissal of Stalin as “a mere product of bureaucracy, a bureaucrat par excellence,” for denying Stalin his status as a worker and as an intellectual, like Trotsky (8). Recoiling against what he sees as Trotsky’s “snobbishness,” he presents him as a purely oppositional and politically inept figure.17 While it is difficult to document attitudes, the facts of the matter show that at every major juncture, Stalin and Trotsky are in opposition. Even when in agreement, they disagreed on the implementation of policy. The most notable of these latter instances is Trotsky’s preference for employing Russian Imperial Army officers to lead the forces of the Red Army; as opposed to Stalin’s insistence on the recruitment of politically reliable, albeit less well trained and experienced, officers. The only exception to this rule is Stalin’s and Trotsky’s support for Lenin’s call for the overthrow of the Russian Provisional Government and its replacement by a workers’-peasants’ state—which is no small exception.

On page 1 of Paradoxes of Power, Kotkin expresses his hopes that his study of Stalin will combine the best features of history, which focuses on large structures, and biography that “tend to privilege individual will.” The benefits of the latter are nowhere more notable than in his presentation of Stalin and Trotsky’s dance of death. In its parts and its totality, Paradoxes of Power documents that Trotsky’s chances of leading the Soviet Union were, from the beginning, nil. Trotsky had joined the Bolsheviks four months before the October (November) Revolution; he was the only Bolshevik leader who lacked years helping to organize what would become the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Previously, he adhered to an informal group, the Independent Mensheviks. The author notes, “Trotsky never drew particularly close to the Mensheviks: He kept his distance from all groups” (201). Prior to his joining the Bolsheviks, Trotsky incessantly castigated Lenin, often using vile language. The epithets Trotsky had hurled at Lenin included “hideous,” “dissolute,” “demagogical,” “malicious,” “morally repulsive” (531).18

Kotkin shows that Stalin always presented himself as Lenin’s disciple while Trotsky treated Lenin as an equal, and at times the lesser figure in the relationship. This was most evident when Trotsky, who represented the newly organized Communist government, publicly defied Lenin and the majority of the Central Committee, who in a desperate ploy to gain time to consolidate Communist rule, agreed that Russia accede to the Germans’ demands and sign the draconian Treaty of Brest-Litovsk that ceded to the Germans the Ukraine and more. As a consequence, the Germans continued to advance deeper into Russia unopposed; making Petrograd vulnerable to occupation (257).

As in all bureaucratic structures, the Central Committee had formal and informal hierarchies. The most influential and secure of its members were Lenin’s protégées. Kotkin ranks Stalin “the highest-ranking member of the latter.” Upon Lenin’s arrival in Petrograd, Lenin gave permission to only two members of the Central Committee to enter his quarters—one of them was Stalin. (341) During Lenin’s last two years, during which time he steadily deteriorated from a series of strokes, Trotsky visited Lenin once and he was the only Bolshevik leader absent from Lenin’s funeral. The Central Committee later appointed Stalin along with Nadezhda Krupskaya (1869-1939) Lenin’s guardians. Stalin tended to be more protective of Lenin than his wife, which brought them into serious conflict.

Stalin’s three competitors (Kamenev and Zinoviev, who always acted in tandem, can reasonably be counted as one unit) acted not so much as advocates of a political program as they did as allies to one or another of the triad. Bukharin, who had started firmly to the left of Stalin, moved diametrically to his right, while Kamenev and Zinoviev, who became known as the Right Opposition, stayed steadily to Stalin’s right. Trotsky, who became known as the leader of the Left Opposition, remained to the left of Stalin. Clearly, Stalin was determining the path forward. Stalin’s position of strength was further strengthened when in 1926 his opponents on the left and right coalesced into the United Opposition. All of the appearance, if not all of the substance, of their maneuverings undercut their protestations that they were acting on principle for the interests of the Party and the Soviet Union. As a remarkably effective General Secretary of the Communist Party, under whose tutelage the Party’s ranks had swelled and its power enormously expanded over the vast expanses of the Soviet Union. In contrast, Stalin’s opponents either had no political base whatsoever, such as in Kamenev’s case, or support in only one or the other of the great Russian metropolises—Moscow and Petrograd.

Mikhail Bukharin, the scion of a middle-class, educated family of progressive inclination, resided in Moscow. Early on, he became a much-published scholar and popularizer of Marxist philosophy and history. Initially, he was seen as a “leftist” within the ranks of the Bolsheviks: he opposed the ratification of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk; advocated for state-controlled trade unions; and demanded a unitary, not federated, socialist state. However, he steadily drifted toward the right. At a time when only one percent of Russia’s arable land was being cultivated in collective farms, Bukharin advocated the indefinite continuation of independent peasant agriculture despite its tendency to produce a class of relatively rich peasants, derisively known as kulaks (fists, in the sense of grasping). In 1928, this position brought him into direct opposition with Stalin, who then advocated enforced collectivization of agriculture. Bukharin’s “pro-capitalist tendency” found no significant base in the ranks of the Soviet Communist Party. His isolation became aggravated by widespread accusations that his applications of Marxist theory of historical development were faulty; from the point of view of those who were making the decisions, his intellectual production was based on false premises.19

Stalin’s erstwhile superiors had lost track of the maxim that victory goes not to those who propose, but to those who dispose. Kotkin shows that Stalin arrived in the position by taking on huge responsibilities and following through with them to their logical end. Kotkin’s narrative of the struggle for power among the five competitors makes for the compelling conclusion that Stalin had no viable competitors. Stalin, at all times in this struggle, had a firm grip on the reins.

Stalin’s Relationship with Lenin

Kotkin’s rendition of Stalin’s childhood reconstructs a platform that synthesizes Stalin’s general environment with his personality and character. He shows how that mix gave him advantages over the other major Bolshevik leaders, who shared a remarkably similar modus vivendi. Stalin’s profile and lifestyle more resembled second and third-tier Bolshevik cadre, members of which became lifelong members of Stalin’s inner circle. They most often mirrored aspects of Stalin’s makeup: they either derived from poor, working-class or peasant backgrounds (Lazar Kaganovich and Michail Kalinin) or from ethnic minority backgrounds (Anastas Mikoyan and Georgy Malenkov), and sometimes both as in the case of Kaganovich (455-457). However, Vyascheslav Molotov, the most influential and valuable member of Stalin’s council of advisors, was an ethnic Russian from a solidly middle-class family (731; passim). In this regard, Stalin’s mode of organization more than any of the other Bolshevik leaders most resembled Lenin’s, who also gathered around himself a cadre of loyal disciples. In contrast with Stalin’s cadre, the other leaders’ mode of organization derived from a relatively elevated social position.

Kotkin captures yet another key aspect of Stalin’s biography: All of his rivals experienced imprisonment and internal exile. But without exception, they spent most of their lives during the prerevolutionary period writing, debating, and plotting in Berlin, Paris, and Vienna, the great centers of European culture and commerce, as well as Zurich and other smaller cities in Switzerland. Major Menshevik political and cultural figures shared with their Bolshevik antagonists a comfortable exile (35, 135). Only Stalin rejected emigration (9). His trips outside of Russia were few, short, and purposeful. Only Stalin stayed behind to foment strikes and rob banks. Lenin was enthralled (123). Stalin, who was seldom self-referential, nonetheless recalled (in 1926), “Three years of revolutionary work among the workers of the oil industry forged me.”20 Aside from Stalin, it is difficult to find instances of Bolshevik leaders having substantive and prolonged interactions with workers and peasants. Trotsky speaks of being profoundly shamed and angered by witnessing instances where his father, a well-off farmer, interacted meanly or unfairly with peasants.21 But this is quite different than Stalin’s direct involvement with workers with whom he shared genuine risks in action and whom he helped to actually prevail over powerful forces.22

Lenin saw more to admire in Stalin than his derring-do. When Stalin’s “Marxism and the National Question” was published in Enlightenment, a liberal journal, Lenin wrote Maxim Gorky (1868-1936) to boast about “a marvelous Georgian, who has collected all the Austrian and other materials” (133).23 During his four-year internal exile living in almost incomprehensibly horrid conditions, just below the Arctic Circle, Stalin craved for books. He wrote constantly begging comrades to send him books. When a comrade died, he may have “borrowed” his small library. In this hellish environment, essays he sent to publishers got lost, and others were destroyed by the elements. Trotsky chided Stalin for producing no noteworthy writings during the war (153-155).24

In 1912, Lenin unexpectedly appointed Stalin to the Central Committee of the Bolshevik Party. Stalin would not disappoint Lenin. By the nature of the life he had led underground in tsarist Russia, Stalin was not able to engage in large-scale, dramatic activities. On March 12, 1917, after almost seventeen years, Stalin arrived from Siberian exile to Petrograd, with little more than his typewriter. No one was there to greet him, and no one knew who he was. His colleagues arrived from Europe better equipped, but Stalin had learned something they hadn’t: He knew Russia. These years of isolation, deprivation, and near-death prepared him, in Kotkin’s words, “to battle indefatigably … and demonstrate revolutionary talents that proved especially apt in the Eurasia setting” (138). As an on-site member of the Central Committee, his major role was as a journalist and orator. Between August and October, he wrote forty lead articles in Pravda, and gave countless speeches. Even more consequentially, “Stalin was deeply engaged in all the deliberations and actions in the innermost circles of the Bolshevik leadership.... He was in the thick of things” (176).

With Lenin’s clandestine 1917 return to Petrograd on April 3, the secure 47-year-old philosopher, scion of a lower-nobility family from the heart of Russia, and the eight-year younger man, a grandson of serfs, from the Caucasus Mountains, bonded. After some initial hesitancy, Stalin endorsed Lenin’s proposal that the Bolsheviks lead the workers to seize state power from the Provisional Government as a first step to the establishment of socialism. This meant they would overrule Marxist orthodoxy, which insisted that a bourgeois revolution must precede a proletarian revolution.

More significantly, Stalin opposed Lenin on two major counts. He opposed Lenin’s call for the nationalization of the land. Instead, he insisted the Bolshevik must embrace the peasants’ mass movement that was enabling them to actually seize the land and equipment of the landowning class at an ever-accelerating pace. The assembled Communist leadership adopted Stalin’s counterproposal to Lenin’s doctrinaire proposal because they could see that it simultaneously materialized the worker-peasant alliance – the centerpiece of the Bolsheviks’ revolutionary strategy – and hijacked the platform of the Socialist Revolutionary Party that most of Russia’s peasants subscribed to.

Stalin also opposed Lenin’s call for a civil war in Europe, a proposal similar to Trotsky’s concept of permanent revolution. Stalin argued that the soldiers, who were overwhelmingly peasants were profoundly weary of war, and the rate of desertions was accelerating as a consequence of the endemic land seizures (188-193). This act set the stage for Stalin’s most consequential proposition up to that time: the enunciation of the theory of “socialism in one country.” Stalin argued that a set of special circumstances—Russia’s size and the consequences of the war—would allow the Soviet Union to survive capitalist encirclement for a significant amount of time. Lenin and most Russian Communists rallied to this formulation. They saw that a devastated Russia would be unable to pursue revolutionary ventures abroad; they also witness a series of failed revolutions on the Soviet Union’s periphery. Furthermore, unlike Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution, Stalin’s proposal cast an optimistic light on the fledgling Communist state.

Stalin’s individual declaration of independence did not alienate his mentor.

Kotkin shows that it was Stalin who devised the formulae that became materialized as the Soviet Union. Kotkin does not repeat the prerequisites for nationhood that included territory, which Stalin had set forth in his Marxism and the National Question (1913), which had laid the groundwork for this triumphal accomplishment. Over opposition from Bukharin, who demanded that the Soviet Union be a unitary state, and Trotsky, who criticized Stalin for “nationalism,” Stalin’s formulation yielded the structure of the Soviet state (349). Abstracting from the complexities. Stalin’s proposal conceived the Soviet Union was an association of federated states each of which had control over the mechanisms for the preservation and further development of its own culture and language. However, the federal state was united by two forces: all of the republics were to remain part of a unitary economy and all would be guided by the same Communist Party. This arrangement coincided with Lenin’s formulation that nationalism in itself was not reactionary. Its political character depended on whether it served to mobilize the oppressed nations seeking liberation or the interests of the oppressing nations by uniting their own citizens to participate in an imperialist project. The establishment of the Soviet Union on these bases had enormous political consequences extending far beyond even the Soviet Union’s far-flung boundaries. Kotkin insists that its creation transcended mere state building to represent “an alternate world order”; its founding thrilled millions throughout the world. Clearly, the Soviet Union’s system of federated republics implied a clarion anticolonial message. Within the newly established Soviet Union, cultural minorities that lacked “territory” but had the other attributes of nationhood (common culture and history) were guaranteed cultural and linguistic rights (343). This codicil had the effect of motivating members of cultural minorities, everywhere, to be more likely to become Communists than socio-economically similar people from the dominant populations. Kotkin notes, “Stalin emerged from this process as the most significant figure in the determining the structure of the Soviet State.” With Lenin’s assent, the Soviet Union was born. It’s not surprising that Kotkin concluded: “More than anyone, he [Stalin] had brought the USSR into being” (350-351, 527).

Shortly after the ratification of the founding of the Soviet Union, Vladimir Lenin entered a steep steady decline. He died on January 17, 1924. Stalin delivered the major eulogy which he organized in the format of a litany, whose refrain was, “We shall fulfill this bequest with honor.” His speech to the gathered leaders, assembled in the Bolshoi Theater, began, “Comrades, we Communists are people of a special mold; we are those who constitute the army of . . . comrade Lenin.” Each time he put forward an additional responsibility, he invoked that refrain. Stalin’s liturgically-inflected speech shone brightly over the drab talks of others and it spoke to the theme of unity: “Comrades, Lenin enjoined us to safeguard the unity of the party.” On the next day, the burial ceremony, which lasted six hours, saw the most important Bolshevik leaders acting as pall bearers. Trotsky was absent from all of these affairs. Kotkin decisively refutes the long list of historians who have excused Trotsky’s failure to have turned around from his journey to Abkhazia, on the Black Sea to attend Lenin’s funeral (537-540). The circumstances around Trotsky's absence at Lenin funeral remain controversial, but Kotkin provides evidence to help understand the complexity Trotsky's fateful failure to return to Moscow. Through his scrupulous historical work, Kotkin establishes the tight alliance of Joseph Stalin and Vladimir Lenin. He also makes a unique statement of its basis from the perspective of its junior partner. “Lenin would always remain the single most important relationship in Stalin’s life.” Stalin positioned himself as Lenin’s heir by acting as much more than a protégée, but much less than an equal. And there were elements in the relationship of “the good son” between the childless Lenin and a son whose father drank far too much and couldn’t quite comprehend where his son was heading.


Although it is not his intention, Stephen Kotkin’s reassessment of Stalin’s accomplishments can benefit the current efforts to revive anticapitalist movements and help make it possible for their participants to envision a socialist society. Especially in the absence of socialist states that materialize their beliefs, socialist/communist movements are deflated and demoralized by a broad-brush demonization of Stalin and devaluation of the Soviet Union and its allies. This largely unwarranted approach has left the Left directionless and without solid ground under its feet. Belief in the possibility of a socialist society has become chimerical; whatever remains of the socialist endeavor—even monuments—is threatened, and the recognition of the potential longer-term value of immediate advances goes unnoticed. Fighting to recognize the accomplishments of the Soviet Union and its most determining leader, Joseph Stalin, is not indulging in nostalgia; it is part of a rear-guard action to regroup and find ways to once again advance towards socialism. That understood, it is inconceivable for the Left to recover the value of the Soviet experience without rescuing the reputation, to the degree reasonable, of Joseph Stalin. Their fates are forever inextricably conjoined.


1 Stephen Kotkin, Stalin: Waiting for Hitler, 1929-1941, Vol. II (New York: Penguin Press, 1917), 4. This essay is

2 “Stalinist” and “Stalinism” are coded terms for “Communist” and “Communism,” which shield their purveyors from association with McCarthyism. Their use has also allowed sectarians, who opposed the practice of communism as it evolved in the Soviet Union, to appropriate the terms of “communist” and “communism.” See Gerald Meyer, “Stalinist and Stalinism: Solely Pejorative Terms,” Science and Society (upcoming issue).

3 Communism, despite its colossal losses, still exists as a significant political movement. The headquarters of the World Federation of Trade Unions, which claims to represent affiliates with 95 million members, is located in Athens, at the headquarters of the Greek Communist Party. There are close to thirty Communist parties that have some palpable influence on their countries' political and cultural lives (India, Greece, Portugal, France, Russia, South Africa, et al.) and perhaps another twenty that function at a decent level (Chile, Japan, Germany). Cuba and Korea, minus its present political superstructure, qualify as Communist countries. Communism, on a world-wide basis, remains the largest and most influential of any political tendency to the Left of social democracy—indeed, it is difficult to identify any other mass-based political tendency to the Left of social democracy. In contrast with these organizational survivals, Communism’s ideological and cultural influence, which was once hegemonic in huge areas of the globe, has been almost obliterated. Among other effects, this means that there is no longer a pantheon enshrining scores of world-class scholars, scientists, writers, and graphic artists to attest to the superiority of socialist societies.

4 The only socialist system that significantly differed from those erected in the Soviet-led bloc was Yugoslavia. It replaced central planning with worker-managed enterprises and an overall national plan for the country’s development with one largely based in its six republics and two regions that developed their own. This decision led to a collapse in production and the fragmentation of the country into seven sovereign states. For a more detailed discussion of this phenomenon, see Gerald Meyer, “Marxism and Anarchism: Their Contradictions,” which is scheduled to appear in the Spring 2019 volume of Science & Society.

5 Three important recent biographies which present Stalin in an overall favorable light are: Susan Brown, Roosevelt and Stalin: Portrait of a Partnership (New York: Alfred Knopf, 2015); Robert Gellately, Stalin’s Curse: Fighting for Communism in War and Cold War (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013); Simon, Sebag, Montefiori, Young Stalin (New York: Knopf, 2007). For a discussion of this subject, see Gerald Meyer, “Joseph Stalin: Revisionist Biography,” Science & Society, Vol. 81, No. 4 (Oct. 2017): 549-569. There is some overlap between that article (which focuses on a study by Robert Gellately) and the present review-essay.

6 (New York: Penguin, 2014) In October 2017, Penguin Press released, Kotkin’s second volume, Stalin: Waiting for Hitler, which carries forward his life from the launching of enforced collectivization and industrialization of the Soviet Union until the Nazi-led invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941. Readers can expect that the third volume, which Kotkin estimates will take five years to complete, will rival or exceed in length the 949 pages of the first and the 1,154 pages of the second volume.

7 For a much shorter biography than Kotkin’s, which similarly sustains the thesis of Stalin’s ideologically-motivated modus operandi, see Gellately, Stalin’s Curse.

8 During the Q & A of a televised talk, when a member of the audience asked Kotkin what prompted him to undertake this colossal project, he replied that it derived from his earlier book, Magnetic Mountain: Stalinism as a Civilization (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1995). This hefty tome lays out a detailed study of the founding and development in 1929 of Magnitogorsk, a new city in the south Urals located literally on top of vast deposits of high-grade iron ore. Magnitogorsk soon became the centerpiece of the Soviet Union’s second steel-based industrial region that would complement the Donbass region in the eastern Ukraine. The motivation for this gargantuan project joined economic and military goals. Upon the book’s completion, Kotkin reported being seized with the desire to apply the historical methods he had employed in Magnetic Mountain to a study of the entire Soviet Union, which he believed could best occur through a major biography of Stalin. He further shared that he employs a historical methodology derived from the Annales School of History, which resembles Marxist historical materialism minus its dialectic, which seems to be an ideal methodology for an anthropological study of a single socio-economic entity and entirely unsuitable for a biography.

9 For a shorter review of Stalin: Paradoxes of Power, see Renate Bridenthal’s thoughtfully crafted remarks in Science & Society 81:4, special issue on the Russian Revolution (Oct. 2017), 608-611.

10 The de-demonization of Stalin might lead some to reconsider the usefulness of Marxism-Leninism as a guide to political practice. After all, Stalin’s successes flowed from his use of this philosophical system. Unfortunately, a study of Stalin’s solid, albeit modest, contributions to Marxism-Leninism is thwarted by the unavailability of any collection of his writings in English.

11 Book TV: C-SPAN, talk at University of Pennsylvania Book Store, Nov. 11, 2014.

12 Tamάs Krausz, Reconstructing Lenin: An Intellectual Biography (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2015), 23.

13 Emil Manukyan, a linguist, described Stalin’s accent as “ubiquitous —his vowels, consonants, and the melody of the language are not Russian.… [I]n addition to his native Georgian, [his] speech was likely influenced by Azeri and Armenian speakers.” Meyer, “Joseph Stalin: Revisionist Biography,” 564. Kotkin and others have compared Stalin to Napoleon: Both were products of great revolutions who became world figures despite their origins from linguistic and cultural sites just beyond the borders of the countries they were later to rule. A major contrast between them was Napoleon’s inability to master Standard French as opposed to Stalin’s mastery of Russian. Stephen Kotkin, Book TV: C-SPAN, talk at the New York Historical Society, Dec. 6, 1917.

14 Leon Trotsky, who was born and raised in the Ukraine, south of the Jewish Pale of Settlement, insisted he did not know Yiddish. Joshua Rubenstein, Leon Trotsky: A Revolutionary’s Life (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2011). Rubinstein’s succinct biography, which is part of Yale University Press’ Series, “Jewish Lives,” successfully weaves the nebulous nature of his Jewishness into its narrative. Oddly, Rubinstein does not recognize the most Jewish aspect of Trotsky’s makeup, that is, “His steadfast belief in the power of the word.” (18)

15 Kotkin’s televised talks synthesize and summarize in ways often lacking in his monumental tomes. Book TV: C-SPAN, talk at University of Pennsylvania Book Store, Nov. 11, 2014.

16 Kotkin does not explicitly apply the term “organic intellectual” to Stalin. In this vein, it is surprising that he selects “pundit” as one of Stalin’s two most notable characteristics – a word I have never seen attached to Stalin by any other biographer. There is more consensus on the other characteristic, “agitator” (130).

17 Meyer, “Joseph Stalin: Revisionist Biography” (551-553). This more favorable point of view of Stalin has attracted a number of other important adherents, who have in common their own rereading of these events in ways that are favorable to Stalin’s historical role. Broad-based scholarly critiques of Kotkin’s interpretive work are not yet evident. However, when they do occur, they will likely do so along the Trotsky-Stalin fault line.

18 Lenin returned Trotsky’s invective in ways that were less generic and more pointed. Lenin accused Trotsky of behaving “like a despicable careerist and factionalist. He pays lip service to the party and behaves worse than any other factionalist. . . . [He] poses as a leftist, helps the rightists while he can. . .” Kotkin ascribes to Lenin the origin of the term “Trotskyism,” by which he did not attribute anything positive. Kotkin, Stalin: Paradoxes of Power, 531.

19 Stephen Cohen’s Bukharin and the Bolshevik Revolution: A Political Biography, 1888-1938 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980), still the best source on this major figure, fails to see the obvious. Bukharin’s advocacy of extending the New Economic Policy (NEP) and the charges that his subject’s historical/philosophical work was un-Marxist precluded his candidacy for leadership.

20 Kotkin, Paradoxes of Power, Stalin’s choice of “forged” to describe the long-term effects of his agitational and organizational activities among the oil workers in Baku could only have been an allusion to these experiences having forged, that is, made him Stalin, “the Man of Steel.” 115. Kotkin appropriately draws attention to Stalin’s use of a catechismal, question-response mode when speaking publicly. It could only have emerged from his life as a seminarian and as an effective mode of communication in an overwhelmingly peasant country. For additional evidence of Stalin’s effective use of a range of rhetorical devices in his speeches, see Meyer, “Joseph Stalin: Revisionist Biography,” 560-561, 565.

21 Rubinstein, Leon Trotsky: A Revolutionary Life, p. 11.

22 Ironically, lived association with “the masses,” aside from stints in prison or exile, may have been more common among Menshevik leaders, who often had trade-union experience, and Socialist Revolutionaries, who “went to the people” and in general did not defined themselves as members of a higher caste, a danger for Bolsheviks who were self-defined “professional revolutionaries.”

23 At the time of his accession to the Central Committee, Josif Jughashvili put aside “Koba,” a Georgian-derived nom de guerre, connoting “avenger,” for “Stalin,” a Slavic-derived nom de guerre meaning, “Man of Steel.” This signaled, perhaps unconsciously, he had moved from the background to center stage in the unfolding drama. (24)

24 For a brief presentation of Stalin’s modest contributions to Marxist-Leninist theory, especially his formulation of “socialism in one country,” and more consequentially his popularization and systemization of Leninism, see Meyer, “Stalin: Revisionist Biography,” 552-553, 594.