HISTORIANS - STALIN AS HISTORICAL ACTOR
The ancient Greeks
supposed that human beings moved backwards into the future, taking their
sightings on the past. The Classicist Bernard Knox explained:
word, opiso, which means
literally ‘behind’ or ‘back’, refers not to the past but to the
future. The early Greek imagination envisaged the past and the present
as in front of us – we can see them. The future, invisible, is behind
Those who could see the
future were ignored, like Cassandra, or were blind, like Tiresias. The
growth of our controls over the natural world has dislodged the notion
that the future is to our rear. Nowadays, the conventional wisdom is
that we realize the plans that we project ahead of us. Machiavelli’s The
Prince (1532) marked this drift in attitudes.
That mastery of fortune
has altered interpretation as well as expectation, leading away from
Philosophical Idealism towards Philosophical Materialism. The older view
was that the real world was a poor copy of an Ideal Form. To a
materialist, history appears as something we make as we proceed. An
historical materialist view of the world is one that treats people
remaking ourselves as we remake our social and natural environments.
In addition, to
“make” means to adjust and amend before shifting circumstance.
Because making is non-teleological, those who retell its story should
also adopt an anti-telic stance. Goethe had The Lord remark to
Mephistopheles: “For man must strive, and striving he must err”.
Our errors are found not only in our moral failings. Even the most
powerful cannot know the day or hour. Historians do us a disservice by
For an historian to
drag what was still the future for his subject into that person’s
calculations is to rupture the compact that E. M. Forster identified
between novelists and their audiences, an approach which should apply to
written history as much as to fiction. All authors rely on our readers
to remember what we have told them. Readers, in turn, should be able to
trust that information that seems stray is provided for a reason,
without needing to have that relevance spelt out in advance.
For example, the opening sentence in Henry Handel Richardson’s The
Fortunes of Richard Mahony gives the theme for the trilogy.
criticized for playing god by manipulating their characters as if they
were puppets. Historians misuse our hindsight if we endow our subjects
with knowledge. The repetition of this device reduces the historical
actor to a marionette but inflates the historian to the equal of a
Napoleon. Forster appreciated how “pleasant” it was “to be
transferred from an office where one is afraid of a sergeant-major into
an office where one can intimidate generals, and perhaps this is why
History is so attractive to the more timid amongst us”.
The historians who
impose their rear vision as foresight on their subjects would never
stake their tenure on predicting how contemporary events will turn out.
Indeed, they prefer to confine themselves to the distant past, for
reasons teased out by Thomas Mann:
professors do not love history because it is something that comes to
pass, but only because it is something that has come to pass; … they
hate a revolution … because they feel it is lawless, incoherent,
irrelevant – in a word, unhistoric … For the temper of timelessness,
the temper of eternity … is … much better suited to the nervous
system of a history professor than are the excesses of the present. The
past is immortalized; that is to say, it is dead; and death is the root
of all godliness and all abiding significance.
As Georg Lukacs
observed, the bankruptcy of bourgeois historiography is never more
apparent than when faced with “the present as history”.
Bereft of the dialectic to cope with the dynamics of their topic, the
scholars clutch at hem of the world-shaping individual who will command
the torrent and the tides to behave like placid ponds. At the nadir are
historians who have nothing to say and so, as M. I. Finley put it, pad
out their incomprehension “as if in answer to the familiar question in
children’s examinations, ‘Tell us all you know about X’.”
A regular instance of
fortune-telling as historical writing is the assertion that after 1939,
Hitler put into effect aims that he had spelt out in Mein
Kampf as early as the mid-1920s. The Fuehrer’s own belief in
astrology seems to have conquered his biographers.
Mussolini might have got some Italian trains to run on time, but Hitler
could control the staging of neither domestic nor European politics.
Hitler’s architect, Albert Speer, admired his Fuehrer’s ability
“to think in three dimensions”. That talent did not extend to
reading the fourth dimension of time.
No less typical of the
astrological approach to historical explanation is a resort to qui
bono? According this interrogatory, the beneficiary of any action
can be judged responsible for its planning, if not its execution. If so,
Augustus put Brutus up to stabbing Julius Caesar in order to have an
excuse for murdering Mark Anthony and taking power. Shakespeare could
devise his plot for the theatre in that fashion. Actors in history
To illustrate the
poverty of the intellect in historical astrology, this essay takes its
examples from some books about Stalin. The essay will then point towards
how an historical materialist should deal with the limits on the
capacity of individuals or our species to execute plans.
The point of this
present exercise is to demonstrate Stalin’s uncertainties, not to
re-interpret the course of events. Hence, the reliance on a single
source, his letters to Molotov, is sufficient, providing those documents
are reliable. Molotov was close to Stalin and there is no reason to
suspect that he needed to dissemble in order to persuade. The editors of
the correspondence, who put the worst construction on almost every line,
accept that the two were good friends.
An alterative objection
would be that Stalin composed these letters with an eye to posterity and
was making himself appear a victim of circumstance. That degree of
deceitfulness suits the view of his traducers, but it too requires a
god-like foresight. That possibility carries us back into the casuistry
practiced by Fundamentalist Christians who refute evolution by claiming
that their god had planted the fossil record at the same time as he
breathed life into the creatures of Genesis.
In the final pages of A
Peoples’ Tragedy, Orlando Figes fell for a post
hoc-ery pocus. Late in October 1923, the Communist Party Plenum
considered a call to expel Leon Trotsky. In Figes’ drama of fate,
Stalin is cast as Trotsky’s nemesis. On this occasion, however, Stalin
forgets the lines that Figes has written for him by voting to spare
Trotsky. Like the writer of any cliffhanging serial – “The Perils of
Leon” - Figes rides to the rescue of the future with this explanation:
always eager to appear as the voice of moderation, thought this was
unwise and the motion was rejected. Stalin, in any case, had no need to
hurry. Trotsky was finished as a major force and his expulsion from the
party – which finally came in 1927 – could await its time.
Are we to believe that
Stalin knew that he would be expelling Trotsky four years later, and so
did not bother to do it in 1923?
It is the mark of a
metaphysician, not an historian, to paste over a subject’s ignorance
by asserting “He must have known” something that would not happen
for several more years.
Had Figes been writing
the history of the Bradford city council and come upon a comparable case
of a mayor voting one way in 1923 and the reverse in 1927, he would have
looked for reasons why his worship had changed his mind. In short, the
historian would have sought evidence. As a monster, Stalin is not an
historical problem, but a moral one. That he could mistake his own best
long-term interests by voting for Trotsky is inadmissible. The Gulag
proves that Stalin’s every move was malignant. The historian is left
with nothing to do but catalogue the crimes that conveyed the people to
In the years just after
Figes’ book ends, Stalin again opposed Kamenev and Zinoviev when they
tried to remove Trotsky from the Central Committee in August 1925. In
the following June, Stalin held out hope for Trotsky’s rehabilitation.
When moving to dump Zinoviev from the Politburo, he wrote to Molotov:
Before the appearance of the Zinoviev group, those with oppositional
tendencies (Trotsky, the workers’ opposition, and others) behaved more
or less loyally and were more or less tolerable.…
Either we strike this blow [expel Zinoviev from the Politburo] now with
the calculation that Trotsky and the others will once again become
loyal, or we risk turning the Central Committee and its bodies into
nonviable institutions incapable of work …
Yet, it was Trotsky who
was expelled from the Party in 1927, when his removal from the Politburo
had not been “on the agenda” a year earlier.
The story of the Soviet Union in the 1920s is distorted by making events
reflect the prominence that Trotsky retains to this day. There has never
been a Zinoviev Fifth International to make him loom larger than
Trotsky. The notion that Stalin had more to fear from Zinoviev than from
Trotsky in 1926 does not fit the line propagated by Trotsky’s
A similar reading
backwards appears in the study of Stalin penned by Colonel-General
Volkogonov who had charge of the KGB archives. Writing of the October
1924 Plenum on “work in the countryside”, Volkogonov reports that
a number of political and theoretical recommendations in which one can
detect the embryos of the great mistakes of the future. The first thing
we have to do, he said, “is to conquer the peasants again”.
Secondly, we have to see that “the field of battle has changed”.
Thirdly, we have to form cadres in the villages”. The year was 1924,
but Stalin was speaking as if it was already 1929.
access to mountains of paper gave him little comprehension that history
The task of Vokogonov’s KGB had been to assemble evidence to secure
convictions. Under their
aegis, the materialist conception of history was turned into the police
conception of history where nothing happens by accident. Every failure
to hit a nail straight became intentional saboutage. As Stalin would
have said, it is no accident that Colonel-General Vokogonov explains
Stalin by the criterion that the KGB deployed against his enemies of the
letters to Molotov between 1925 and 1935 offer a different path to
analysis through their glimpses of the dictator’s doubts and
difficulties. Their tone is summed up by this reflection by Stalin from
have long pondered the matter of the Lashevich affair, going back and
forth, linking it with the question of the opposition groups in general:
several times I came to various opinions and have finally settled on the
inevitable, the more so as leaders are making their way to the top.
Leaders prosper by repressing their doubts. They are no conceived free
Stalin also complained
that he could not obtain reliable information about what was happening
in China, that he had failed to install the right people to edit Pravda,
and had not got the correct decisions made about the Leningrad
leadership. Over and over, Stalin wrote about his aims in terms that
revealed the limits on his power. For instance in 1932, he thought
we should be prepared to do anything to get that 30-32 per cent growth.
I’m afraid it’s late to be speaking about this now – no major
changes can be introduced before October in any event. But perhaps we
should try? Let’s give it a shot – we really ought to try.
This letter pictures
someone with inadequate information exercising partial authority.
The letters to Molotov
report other occasions on which Stalin lost. In 1925, he could not get
any support from the other six members of the “underground
Politburo” to oppose their mutual enemy Trotsky on the building of the
Dnepr Dam. Nor could Stalin get their agreement to publish his letter
replying to an American book reporting divisions in the Party. In July
1927, he opposed the Soviet Government’s official recognition of
Chiang Kai-shek in China, which he heard about only after the event. In
September 1929, three weeks after the Politburo had chastised Rykov,
Stalin wrote to Molotov:
learned that Rykov is still chairing your meetings on Mondays and
Thursdays [Politburo sessions] Is that true? If it’s true, why are you
allowing this comedy to go on? Who is it for and for what reason?
Can’t you put a stop to this comedy? Isn’t it time?
Stalin wanted to sack
the head of construction at the Ministry of Transport, whom he called a
“nutcase”, and who had prevented the laying of tracks to Siberia
moving “an inch forward”. The offender was shuffled between jobs. A
year later, he turned up as director of a regional rail network.
High on Stalin’s
priority in 1929 was the gathering of grain for export to earn the hard
currency to fund industrialization and defence, but he was battling to
put his views into practice:
Politburo has adopted my proposals concerning grain procurement. This is
good, but in my opinion, it is inadequate. Now the problem is fulfilling the Politburo’s decision. … I’m afraid that the
local GPU [the state police] will not learn about the Politburo’s
decision, and it [the decision] will get bogged down in the “bowels”
of the OGPU.
The next year, similar
problems of fulfillment arose as he railed “against the bureaucratism
that is consuming us”. Here, Stalin
portrays OGPU as an obstacle to his power, a barrier which might be
circumvented by working through its regional offices.
When that happened later in the 1930s, the purges ran riot.
Stalin had a fair idea
of where he wanted the Soviet Union to go but was less clear on how to
get there. He had firm views about lifting production but was aware of
some of the obstacles. He was also committed to strengthening the Party.
Historians need to see the barriers he encountered, to acknowledge the
inadequacies in the administrative apparatus and his lack of
information. Stalin’s inability to get things done was as potent a
spur to personal dictatorship as was any paranoia.
Historians could draw a
lesson about Stalin’s future from his failure to make the bureaucracy
in both the party and the state do his bidding. That line of explanation
would tract how the terror became his way forward. We now know that
terror produced a different kind of paralysis, but Stalin could not know
that outcome as he rebelled against his inability to have Party
directives carried out even by the political police.
Strategy was one thing.
Tactics were another. For instance, how was labour productivity to be
increased in conformity with the principle of reward for effort, not
need? He moaned that the few workers who laboured honestly were rewarded
by being promoted to office jobs “where they die of boredom”.
“What should we do?”, he asked Molotov.
After detailing ways to encourage the best workers, Stalin acknowledged
that his proposals could not “be applied immediately
in all branches of
When it came to moving
against “wreckers in the meat industry”, Stalin was in no doubt that
“the whole group … must definitely be shot and their names published
in the press”. Eight swindlers
A different set of
impediments to power appeared at the close of Stalin’s life, when
physical ailments intensified.
In the late 1940s, he was in semi-retirement, emerging to “decide”
between factions in the politburo. The 1949 attack on Vosnesensky seems
to have been fabricated by rivals for succession, not by Stalin himself.
Until the late 1980s,
scholarship about Soviet leaders was starved of archival files, but
gorged on émigré anecdotes. Since then, some of the archives have been
opened, often to the highest bidder, so that revelations about espionage
have taken precedence. In the absence of primary sources, historians
were tempted to explain Stalin by arranging such evidence as they had to
“prove” what they knew, irrespective of the sources. The chronicler
of Stalin’s terror, Robert Conquest, had a pyramid of corpses as
evidence but lacked the footnoted data that a historian needs in order
to detail how it really was. Instead, Conquest constructed an arch of
motivation to make the scraps fit into Stalin’s quest for absolute
power. The 1934 assassination of Kirov became the lynchpin of this
argument-by-coherence. Unable to put Stalin’s fingerprint on a smoking
gun, Conquest had to rely on the line of prosecution that had been
popular at the Moscow Show Trials:
from evidence, the first obvious question to be put in all murder cases
is, of course, cui bono –
who benefits? That someone benefits from a murder does not necessarily
proved that he did it; but in the absence of any other beneficiaries it
is always strong grounds for suspicion.
Let’s accept that
Stalin made himself into the prime beneficiary of Kirov’s murder which
he used to eliminate physically all his rivals – Bukharin, Kamenev and
Zinoviev, to name but three. Yet, another scholar who surveyed the
evidence available from KGB and other Soviet archives was unable to
trace the smoking gun. On the contrary, the evidence points to a lone
assassin whose action gave Stalin grounds to move against the Opposition
– just as the Nazis had taken advantage of the Dutch Communist who set
fire to the Reichstag.
We also need to consider whether the assassination of Kirov could have
panicked Stalin’s in the year after the Nazis came to power.
The crux to this
discussion is is reached by asking: when did Stalin cease to be a good
Bolshevik? Trotskyites will say that he was never one. Robert Conquest
would assert that he never stopped being one because his crimes were the
quintessence of Leninism. Perhaps Stalin died seeing himself as the only
good Bolshevik. A related question, posed by Adam Ulam in 1973, goes to
heart of this essay: when did Stalin first suspect that one man could
rule the U.S.S.R.? Throughout the 1920s, neither he nor his opponents
operated on the assumption that they could replace the Tsar. Stalin had
to teach himself that autocracy was again possible.
Historians need to move
forward in history with Stalin and not make him its master. That way, we
can begin to see his crimes originating in an attempt to achieve
omnipotence and omniscience rather than as their enactment.
We await a biographer who is not anxious for Stalin’s supremacy to
emerge, but who tracks how he drew closer to such a position.
Never were the limits
on Stalin’s power more terrifying to him than when the Nazis invaded
the Soviet Union in July 1941. He had failed to predict the collapse of
the Molotov-Rippenthrop Pact of 1939, and had spurned warnings of the
assault as another plot by Churchill’s to pit the Nazis and the
Soviets against each other. His ability to predict his fate was no
better than his judgement of Hitler. Stalin waited in his dacha,
expecting that his comrades would have him shot. He could not know that
when they arrived it would be to beg him to return to Moscow to take
command of the defence of the Soviet Union.
is no accident
treatment of the past, like prophesying the future, is inimical to a
materialist account of history. Those writing strategies are the residue
of Philosophical Idealism, from Plato to Hegel.
Plato set down the
essentials of Philosophical Idealism in an exchange concerning a
carpenter. Socrates displayed his usual totalitarian method of
cross-examination of Glaucon about representation (mimesis).
'The quickest way is to
take a mirror and turn it round in all directions; before long you will
crate sun and stars and earth, yourself and all other animals and
plants, and furniture.'
Glaucon: 'Yes, but they would only be reflections, not
Socrates: 'Quite right, and very much to the point. For
an artist is a craftsman of just this kind, I think. Do you agree?'
Socrates: 'You may perhaps object that the things he
creates are not real; and yet there is a sense in which the painter
creates a bed, isn’t there?'
Glaucon: 'Yes, he produces an appearance of one.'
Socrates: 'And what about the carpenter? Didn’t you
agree that what he produces is not the form of bed which according to us
is what a bed really is, but a particular bed?'
Glaucon: 'I did.'
Socrates: 'If, then, what he makes is not ‘what a bed
really is’, his product is not ‘what is’, but something which resembles ‘what is’ without being
it. And anyone who says that the products of the carpenter or any other
craftsman are ultimately real can hardly be telling the truth, can he?'
Glaucon: 'No one familiar with the sort of arguments
we’re using could suppose so.'
Socrates: 'So we shan’t be surprised if the bed the
carpenter makes is a shadowy thing compared to reality'.
The incredulity that
many of us now experience on encountering Plato’s idea of what is
“real” and what is “shadowy” makes it difficult to discuss
Philosophical Idealism. Yet, a version of Plato’s account has been the
commonsense throughout most of the human past.
Plato’s bed is the
“ideal form” for the misinterpretation of Stalin’s scheming and
strategies can be put under the rubric of god-structured thought. That
mode of argument includes any way of understanding the world that posits
a mind which can know in advance all that will be necessary to achieve
some purpose. It creates a neat and tidy universe, where the good, the
true and the beautiful make a perfect fit.
explanations continue to mislead scientists and historians,
non-believers as much as the Fundamentalists. People who deny the
existence of angels or miracles nonetheless offer accounts of the world
which depend on the ordering of events in ways that reproduce
theological presumptions. Philosophical Idealism and atheism would seem
to be antithetical, and in some ways they have been. Militant atheists
such as Richard Dawkins, however, have revived god-structured thought in
their propagation of Darwinism as a doctrine of perfect adaptation.
Materialist position is that we must always learn by doing. Work changes
us as we alter our circumstances, social and natural. The claim that
“we are what we eat” was mechanical. To say that “We become what
we do” is as close to the truth in materialist dialectics as aphorism
can manage. Human planning is provisional. The telic tends to the
theological while materialism bends with the makeshift.
Marx bears some
responsibility for the confusion about whether historical materialism is
another metaphysic. In a discussion in Capital
(1867) of the labour-process he drew a metaphor
spider conducts operations that resemble those of a weaver, and a bee
puts to shame many an architect in the construction of her cells. But
what distinguishes the worst architect from the best of bees is this,
that the architect raises his structure in imagination before he erects
it in reality.
That contrast is
acceptable as historical materialism. Our minds establish plans towards
which we move, with greater or lesser degrees of success. That we are
able to imagine goals at all is another of the consequences of millennia
of previous activities (work), both physical and mental.
In the next sentence
Marx went too far: “At the end of every labour process, we get a
result that already existed in the imagination of the labourer at its
commencement”. This conclusion
teeters on Philosophical Idealism. The final product of anyone’s
endeavours can never be the same as that conceived at the start. To
suppose that it can is to fall for a god-structured
account of knowledge. Such a theistic epistemology is in opposition
to a materialism in which human beings learn by doing. An unmediated
move from imagination to reality jumps over the learning stages. A clear
run from plan to product is true for neither how our species has
developed, nor how individuals proceed.
In 1876, Frederick
Engels etched the limits to success in his notes on The
part played by labour in the transition from ape to man:
us not, however, flatter ourselves overmuch on account of our human
victories over nature. For each such victory nature takes its revenge on
us. Each victory, it is true, in the first place brings about the
results we expected, but in the second and third places it has quite
different, unforeseen effects which only too often cancel the first.
people who, in Mesopotamia, Greece, Asia Minor and elsewhere, destroyed
the forests to obtain cultivable land, never dreamed that by removing
along with the forests and collecting centres and reservoirs of moisture
they were laying the basis for the present forlorn state of those
the Italians of the Alps used up the pine forests on the southern
slopes, so carefully cherished on the northern slopes, they had no
inkling that by doing so they were cutting at the roots of the dairy
industry in their region; they had still less inkling that they were
thereby depriving their mountain springs of water for the greater part
of the year, and making it possible for them to pour still more furious
torrents on the plains during the rainy seasons. Those who spread the
potato in Europe were not aware that with those farinaceous tubers they
were at the same time spreading scrofula.
at every step we are reminded that we by no means rule over nature like
a conqueror over a foreign people, like someone standing outside nature
– but that we, with flesh, blood and brain, belong to nature, and
exist in its midst, and that all our mastery of it consists in the fact
that we have the advantage over all other creatures of being able to
learn its laws an apply them correctly.
The optimism in the
conclusion is conditional on our willingness to apply what we learn. Our
survival is another human invention since the rest of the natural world
is indifferent, if not hostile, to our presence.
From the account of
inevitable failure that Engels provided in regard to human activity
derives the truth that even such a genius among the proponents of
historical materialism, as Marx, must sometimes fail to maintain the
insights he has gained about how our species acquires knowledge.
Whenever Karl Popper was able to convict Marx of “prophecy” or
belief in “iron laws of development” he was confirming the lament
that Engels set out with such eloquence. Popper’s palpable hits are
proof of Marx’s learning as he went along, that is, of historical
Marx’s concept of
history meant that he could have been born an historical materialist.
Plato’s version of perfection in the Ideal Form had been abandoned by
most philosophers. Marx had to work his way from Hegel who had turned
Plato’s Ideal Form on its head. Instead of seeing human actions –
the carpenter’s bed-making – as moving away from the Real Bed as
Ideal Form, Hegel pictured human action as the bearer of that Form –
Reason – moving towards its Ideal condition. For Plato, perfection was
prior to human history. For Hegel, it was posterior to it. Marx’s
contribution was to deny perfection any place in human affairs. Indeed,
to discuss the question in terms of perfection-imperfection carries over
an Idealist stamp. The persistence of struggle had to apply to his own
articulation of his insight. Its substance meant that he would slip back
into Philosophical Idealism. To pretend otherwise is to transfer the
doctrine of immaculate conception to ideas. Atavistic errors are also to
be found in Darwin and Einstein.
Further appreciation of
the thesis being proposed here will not be enriched by playing paper,
scissors and rock with quotations from Marx or Popper. The task is to
pursue the precepts after which Marx and Engels had to strive in their
every sentence. Similarly, between 1935 and 1945, Popper learnt that he
had been wrong about the universality of a single set of laws of nature
The anchor of
historical materialism is that we remake ourselves as we go along,
reshaping our hopes and plans as Jorn Utzon had to do in moving beyond
his sketches of sails, through the application of designs for sections
of the roof and onto the pouring of the concrete.
The Eighth Wonder that his engineers and construction crews brought to
fruition could not be a replica of the one he had raised in his
imagination in 1953. The architect is even less like a bee than Marx
supposed. So were bees.
Bernard Knox, Backing into the
future, W. W. Norton & Company, New York, 1994, p. 11.
Matt Lenoe, “Did Stalin Kill Kirov and Does It Matter?”, Journal
of Modern History,
74 (2), June 2002, pp. 352-380.
The didactic Handbook
of Marxism was one of the references available to Popper when
writing The Open Society and its Enemies from exile in New Zealand, see
Malachi Haim Hacohen, Karl
Popper, The Formative Years, 1902-1945, Cambridge University
Press, 2000, pp. 439-48. Contrary to received ideas, Popper
acknowledged his own debt to Marx, promising always to “emphasise
such of his views as I believe to be of lasting merit”. Popper
also praised Marx because “his main interest was to help suffering
human individuals”, and he recognized that “Marx’s faith …
was fundamentally a faith in the open society”, Karl R. Popper, The
Open Society and Its Enemies, 2 Hegel and Marx, Princeton
University Press, Princeton,
NJ, 1966 edition, pp. 88, 319n. and 200.