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March 05, 2023
Stalin died on 5 March 1953 -- seventy years ago today. How should Stalin be remembered? I answered this question once before, in 1979 on the centenary of the Soviet dictator's birth. My article was published in Marxism Today, the monthly "theoretical and discussion jouirnal" of the Communist Party of Great Britain -- of which I was, at the time, a fully paid-up and active member. (I've written more about the communist party and me here.)
If you take a look at my 1979 article, you might be curious about a couple of strange details. One is the date of Stalin's birth, given in my article as 21 December 1879. This date was generally accepted at the time I wrote, but in 1990 it was discovered that in 1920 for unknown reasons Stalin had taken a year off his age. He was actually born on 6 December 1878. The other odd thing is that the article doesn't have my name on it, again for unknown reasons. I was listed as author on the journal contents page, and that's all.
Earlier this year I was prompted to think about how my answer might have changed since then, when someone wrote to me out of the blue.
I have recently read an article on Soviet history in an ancient copy of Marxism today and just wondered if you were the author?
Yes, that would be me.
My correspondent came back to me:
I thought it was a very interesting take on the subject and the great majority has stood the test of time.
That sounded nice, but I wasn't too sure. What exactly had I written more than forty years ago? I dug the 1979 original out of my personal archive and read it carefully. Then, I replied:
I thought I had better reread the article before taking your praise for granted. I continued to work on the subject for the rest of my career, which included thirty years in various former Soviet archives dealing with military and economic affairs and internal security). These experiences have perhaps left me with a darker view of the Stalin era (or of the whole Soviet experience) now than I had at the time.
Writing about the Russian Revolution today, I would probably not ascribe agency to the working class as a class (there was plenty of agency, but not of the working class as such).
If Stalin’s rise can be ascribed to an “organic” relationship that he developed with anyone, it was with the party cadres more than the working class.
Turning to the 1930s, what I wrote about a reformist faction led by Kirov was nonsense: as we know now, there were never any disagreements within Stalin’s circle, and no factions whatsoever, only transient personal alliances of convenience that were quickly dissolved as soon as Stalin got to know about them.
I was ignorant of the motives, mechanisms, and scale of the mass purges of 1937-38, and of the extent to which they were started, managed, and then stopped on Stalin’s personal instructions.
I described the “enemies” destroyed by the purges as “non-existent” because I had not fully understood Stalin’s anticipation of war nor had I come across his belief that Soviet society was full of “unconscious” or “potential” enemies who would become traitors when war broke out. I had not really grasped how Stalin thought he could identify the potential enemies based on family background and social and ethnic markers. I was unaware of Stalin’s rule that it was better to kill 20 people than to let one spy get away and I did not understand the encompassing Soviet definition of a spy.
I skated past Stalin’s role as Hitler’s accessory in starting World War II.
I overstated Stalin’s postwar efforts to return Soviet society to its prewar mould: by 1945, we now know, Stalin was physically no longer able to control everything as he had done before, and this set many changes in motion that would become fully apparent only in 1956.
Finally, I did not stress enough what is suggested by the article’s illustrations (which I did not choose): military power-building (which long pre-dated Hitler) and the comprehensive militarization of Soviet society.
Of course, I wrote what I wrote. I’m pleased if I got anything right, and I’m also pleased if it was possible to learn from my mistakes. You can decide for yourself whether the points above count as minor or major corrections.
I went on to explain the circumstances under which I wrote the article.
The article has a back story that is not completely without interest. As you say, Monty Johnstone was the party’s premier expert on the Soviet Union, and I joined the party only after meeting him in London and spending a day talking with him. Others of his generation included the economist Maurice Dobb, Dennis Ogden (who had reported for the Morning Star from Moscow in the 1960s), Brian Pollitt (son of Harry Pollitt, the party’s general secretary from 1929 to 1960), and Pat Sloan, who had visited Russia on a number of occasions. In my slightly younger generation, several others had similar interests: Jon Bloomfield, Geoff Roberts, Jan Sling, and Ken Spours to name a few. (Also Julian Cooper, but our perspectives had less in common then than now.) We had encouragement from Monty and Dennis.
The thing is that the British party leaders were very sensitive to what could be written about the Soviet Union -- and by whom. In 1975 or thereabouts I submitted an article to James Klugmann, then the editor of Marxism Today, for publication on the twentieth anniversary of the twentieth Soviet party congress. The article never appeared, and I no longer have a copy. When the occasion arrived, Marxism Today published another article, this one written by John Gollan (the general secretary who succeeded Pollitt). Gollan’s article included a number of passages using my words. It turned out that Klugmann had shared my draft with Gollan, who borrowed from it. At first my nose was put out of joint, but Klugmann explained to me that this was politics, and I should take it as a compliment. Anyway, I took advantage of the next anniversary (I don’t recall if it was on Klugmann’s initiative or mine) to send in the article that you have to hand.
The one thing missing from this explanation is something that I knew perfectly well but had momentarily forgotten: by the time of my 1979 article, James Klugmann had stepped aside from Marxism Today and Martin Jacques had taken over as editor, so it was thanks to Martin that my article was accepted and published.