Where is Austro Libertarian?

History

How Did Stalin Happen?

By
Gabriel McCray
|
November 5, 2019
Richard Pipes: "there was nothing preordained about either the fall of tsarism or the Bolshevik power seizure... but, once it occurred and the totalitarian machine was in place, then the rise of Stalin became virtually a foregone conclusion.”
History

How Did Stalin Happen?

By

Gabriel McCray

|
November 5, 2019

Richard Pipes: "there was nothing preordained about either the fall of tsarism or the Bolshevik power seizure... but, once it occurred and the totalitarian machine was in place, then the rise of Stalin became virtually a foregone conclusion.”

Socialists today largely denounce the terrors of Stalinism, from its murdering ruthlessness to its stifling bureaucratization of government to the sheer psychological impact it had on the entire East European region. But even beyond the empirical devastation, perhaps the most aggravating aspect of the regime led by Joseph Stalin, in the eyes of socialism’s contemporary advocates, is that he tarnished the reputation of everything related to socialism, communism, Marxism, and even Bolshevism for those who still see Russia’s 1917 Bloshevik Revolution as the proper path forward for class struggle.

To this latter point, it is often held by those who romanticize the events of “red October” that it was primarily an exercise in proletariat expression; the people actively making the future their own, tearing down the autocracy of old, and birthing for themselves a better world built on the Marxist framework of a classless society. On this view, the final shift away from the tsarist system was democratic in nature—a fully fledged people’s revolution. Thus, the later terrors of Stalinism were a grand betrayal, not a fulfillment, of the spirit of 1917.

As well, therefore, the revolution was not merely a repudiation of the old tsarist regime, at the time headed by Nicholas II, but it was also a popularlevel repudiation of the path toward change advocated by the “reformists”: those who proposed working with the bourgeois in the government to bring about better conditions. Such a position was taken up, in contrast to the Lenin-led Bolsheviks, by the Menshevik Party—advocates of a shift away from hereditary and absolute power, but managed by technocrats, experts in statecraft. In fact, as articulated by one Menshevik leader, Nikolai Sukhanov, the “government that was to take the place of tsarism must be exclusively bourgeois.”

Against both the tsarist regime and tsarism’s more moderate opposition, the Bolsheviks were supposed to be champions of the people’s true will in action and in fact, a revolution carried by the people themselves, not just a distant representative of the people in a hypothetical sense. Thus, the “dictatorship of the proletariat,” a Marxian concept, was the inevitable next step in the epochal struggle of the working class to overcome capital’s power, and tsarism therefore was inevitably living its last days: Marxism, after all, preached the certainty of the transition to socialism, and it would be a mass of the proletariat that would rise up and earn it for themselves.

Hence, the collapse of tsarist Russia was not something that could have been avoided in history; it was predetermined by the dynamics of class conflict: both revolutionary socialism and the collapse of tsarism were mutually dependent on each other for their fateful fulfillment. It follows from this Marxist narrative of their dual inevitability that Stalinism was a great and unforeseeable accident of history. It could never have been predicted before 1917 and it flew in the face of the commendable uprising.

Tsarism’s fall was predictable, the Bolshevik’s success was predictable, Stalin’s betrayal was not. Such is the common contemporary Marxist view. And as historian Richard Pipes points out in Three Whys of the Revolution, this narrative, which was also the official narrative of the Communist Party in the Soviet Union, would soon be accepted even by certain Western scholars as well. Perhaps a symptom of wartime Western-Allied partnership with Russia and, on a grand scale, academic preference for internationalist socialism over “nationalist fascism and Nazism,” there was a lack of critical challenge to this framework of interpretation regarding the stages experienced from tsarist Russia to the rise of Joseph Stalin.

Pipes’ own thesis sees all of this as exactly the inverse of reality: tsarism was not posed for collapse, a proletariate revolution was neither inevitable (nor, as we shall see, did it even take place at all), and the rise of Stalin was not an accident once the Bolsheviks won the day. The dynamics of Russian society and the mentality of Bolshevik leadership can very well explain the rise and development of Stalin’s terrors.

Collapse of the Old Regime

The idea that the monarchy in Russia collapsed into a new era of government because it was destined to relies on the Marxist interpretation of historical progress, summarized in The Communist Manifesto as “the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.” That is, social conflict, inspired by an agitated proletariat class, is itself the cause of the movement of history.

Such a unilinear understanding of epic political shifts is not careful enough to consider the difficult variety and diversity of challenges faced by early twentieth century Russia. It does not consider realistically the political tensions within the new dynamic of a post-1905 constitutional monarchy, nor does it offer enough weight to the difficulty of Russian commitments in the First World War.

Internally, the amount of attention given to political opposition within the government itself was the source of major distraction and political instability. The monarchical regime itself was put under exceedingly intense pressure as the liberal and socialist partiesnot the rural proletariat—inched their way toward total control. Externally, the dynamics of international commitments would ultimately compel Nicholas II to abdicate. Pipes sheds light on this decision: “The tsar could have saved the throne if that were his supreme objective.” He could have signed for a Russian-side peace, pulled back his engaged military, and brought “home millions of combat troops capable of quelling domestic disorder.”

Instead, “out of pure patriotism” and desire to maintain the integrity of his allied loyalties, “when he was told by the generals” that he would have to choose for “Russia to stay in the war or abdicate, he abdicated.” The fall of tsarist Russia was a political crisis, not firstly a socio-economic one.

The Rise of Red Russia

If the socialist narrative is that the old regime collapsed because the proletariat brought about its demise, then the next question pertains to the character of the revolution itself. Was the Bolshevik Revolution a mass proletariat uprising? Or, in contradistinction to this theory, was it actually an opportunistic coup d’état?

While many socialists who take the “people’s uprising” theory can refer to Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution to point out that there were upwards of thirty thousand people involved in the October events, Pipes points out that as Russia contained 150 million people, two million of whom were there in Petrograd, tens of thousands does in no way conceivable constitute some majoritarian victory.

Moreover, Lenin himself, in the months prior to the October moment, would constantly dismiss the idea that the majority was capable, let alone willing, to undertake the actions that must be done to achieve Bolshevik victory. “In times of revolution,” he wrote, “it is not enough to ascertain the ‘will of the majority.’” Victory would require a “better organized, more conscious… minority [to impose] its will on the majority and conquer it.”

Indeed, of the three primary radical parties (already therefore a small portion) in the Russian government, the Bolshevik Party was smaller than both the Menshevik Party and the Socialists-Revolutionaries Party. In any case, not only was the Bolshevik Party never actually a majority party within the government, a post-revolutionary vote would fall flat on the Bolshevik’s faces, resulting in the subsequent elimination of the legitimacy of this vote.

The theory that the Bolshevik uprising was a popular struggle, Pipes argues, was not even a position held by party leaders at the time. It was their view, held also by most Western historians until the 1960s rise of the academic and intellectual New Left, that “October 1917 was a perevorot—an ‘overthrow’—rather than a revoliutsiia.” Pipes then posits that the shift in narrative from a seizure of power to a democratic uprising came from the party itself once they wanted to separate themselves from the horrors of Stalin.

Of course, if Lenin and the Bolsheviks were in fact initiating a classical coup d’état, this would be itself a rejection of the theory advanced by Marx in his vision for what “must” eventually take place in the course of victory; for Marx, the uprising would take place at the hand of the broken and oppressed proletariate, not a collection of intellectual theorists and strategists.

All this is to summarize the position that the October events were not generated naturally from the masses à la Marxist inevitability, but imposed on Russia by the ideologue party leadership. But we must still ask, if the revolt, contrary to the Soviet narrative, was a minority coup d’état, why did the Bolsheviks succeed?

Their success can be attributed precisely to the fact that they were so undemocratic, they rejected any consideration of the masses as a whole. In a significant observation, Pipes argues that the masses—both in Russia and more generally in global societies—tend not to think in holistic, grand terms as “intellectuals” do. “Only intellectuals have universal grievances: only they believe that nothing can change unless everything changes.” Peasants and workers, on the other hand, tend to simply look for specific concessions to specific hardships. And hence their own demonstrated preference for compromise, for what the Bolshevik Party would resolutely dismiss as capitulation to the bourgeois.

The Devil Incarnate

also by most Western historians until the 1960s rise of the academic and intellectual New Left, that “October 1917 was a perevorot—an ‘overthrow’—rather than a revoliutsiia.” Pipes then posits that the shift in narrative from a seizure of power to a democratic uprising came from the party itself once they wanted to separate themselves from the horrors of Stalin.

Of course, if Lenin and the Bolsheviks were in fact initiating a classical coup d’état, this would be itself a rejection of the theory advanced by Marx in his vision for what “must” eventually take place in the course of victory; for Marx, the uprising would take place at the hand of the broken and oppressed proletariate, not a collection of intellectual theorists and strategists.

All this is to summarize the position that the October events were not generated naturally from the masses à la Marxist inevitability, but imposed on Russia by the ideologue party leadership. But we must still ask, if the revolt, contrary to the Soviet narrative, was a minority coup d’état, why did the Bolsheviks succeed?

Their success can be attributed precisely to the fact that they were so undemocratic, they rejected any consideration of the masses as a whole. In a significant observation, Pipes argues that the masses—both in Russia and more generally in global societies—tend not to think in holistic, grand terms as “intellectuals” do. “Only intellectuals have universal grievances: only they believe that nothing can change unless everything changes.” Peasants and workers, on the other hand, tend to simply look for specific concessions to specific hardships. And hence their own demonstrated preference for compromise, for what the Bolshevik Party would resolutely dismiss as capitulation to the bourgeois.

Many socialists argue that Lenin, if he ever got carried away, nevertheless had a mind for the eventual ideals of a classless social arrangement. Stalin, on the other hand, took advantage of the progress his priors had made and hijacked the revolution upon Lenin’s death.

Contrary to this thesis, the success of the Bolsheviks in 1917, if indeed it can be attributed to ruthless lust for domination rather than Marxian inevitability, sets the political context for the rise of Stalinism. On one hand, because of their minority position in government in the early years, and not having the popular support outside government, the Lenin-led party was forced to hamstring all political opposition to maintain their fragile control.

On the other hand, the sudden collapse of tsarist era statesmen rendered to the new regime a particular problem of having no skilled administrators. As Pipes writes, “[administrative tasks] required very different personalities from those who had spent most of their adult lives in the revolutionary underground. Indeed, the very rules of the Bolshevik Party ensured that its members would have no competence other than making revolution.”

The reason that Lenin had appointed Stalin in the first place to succeed him was that Lenin saw in him the ability to both maintain the purity of the party against political opposition, as well as his perceived skill in managing and organizing the state’s bureaucratic apparatus.

The political context therefore, built on an unnatural coup d’etat, were ripe for the creation of a powerapparatus that would inevitably invite someone of Stalin’s nightmarish personality and inclinations. By challenging the inevitability of the fall of tsarist Russia and the Bolshevik victory, the alleged accident of Stalin can as well be challenged.

About the author

Gabriel McCray is a postgraduate student in the Pacific Northwest where he and his wife, Julie, reside and talk about liberty issues.

from the editor's blog