Medvedev’s Notion Of Stalinism
A 1980 review of developments in Roy Medvedev’s writings about the Soviet system
by Brendan Clifford
- 1. Medvedev’s Notion Of Stalin
- What Happened In 1956?
- A Curious Man
- System And Aberration
- Monster In Human Form, Or Human In Monstrous Form?
- He Disagreed, Therefore He Erred
- Mad, Bad And Typical
- Moral Dilemmas
- Find The Leninist
- Stalin’s Usurpation: The Cause Of Itself
- Stalinism: Bolshevism Minus Lenin?
- A Moscow Trial: 1922
- Revolutionary Legality!?!!!
- The “Lenin Levy”
- Stalin & The “Flow Of Events”
- Petty Bourgeois Workers & Proletarian Lesser Gentry
- Simultaneous Development & Degeneration
- In Conclusion
- “Out Of The Depths”
- [Reality check – 2017]
- Stalin At War
- Reforming The State
- Economic Policy
- A Revealing Metaphor
Roy Medvedev is widely considered on the British left to be the ideal type of Soviet dissident. Solzhenitsyn’s powerful negative criticism of the Soviet system in the “Gulag” series produced traumatic effects on many admirers of those lighthearted escapist novelettes, A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, The First Circle, etc. When Solzhenitsyn demonstrated that he was a person of substance who was not prepared to spend his life as the protege of some oligarch or as the hero of the frivolous new left of bourgeois society – the provider of spurious titillation and vicarious thrills which left the sacred and fundamental illusions intact – then the new left turned on him with that snarl of theirs which may sometimes frighten children. And they turned for succour to Medvedev. Medvedev operated within their ideological parameters. He did not shock them or force them to turn their minds upon unpleasant realities. Medvedev was an immensely reassuring sort of dissident. He wrote according to the “protocols” of Marxism, and his criticism was of an unrelentingly positive kind. He was therefore declared to be progressive and revolutionary, and Solzhenitsyn was declared to be an embittered reactionary. When Solzhenitsyn contributed to a book of Christian essays a few years ago (From Under the Rubble) it was taken to be self-evident that he had thereby put himself outside the pale of civilisation.
Medvedev’s Let History Judge: The Origins and Consequences of Stalinism, published in an English translation by Macmillan in 1971, “was conceived after the 20th Congress of the CPSU in 1956 and written after its 22nd Congress in 1961” (Foreword), It was written in the early sixties, when the “Party resolutely exposed Stalin‘s crimes and began to restore Leninist norms”. But by the time it was ready for publication, the liberal dawn that seemed to be breaking in 1961 had come to nothing. The sun had barely peeped above the horizon and had hurriedly fallen down again when it saw the effect it was having. Medvedev’s book, conceived as a contribution to the “Leninist” reinvigoration of the Party, proved to be unpublishable, and had to be sent to foreign parts in order to see the light of day. In order to be made known it had to be fostered out to bourgeois society. And this fact of foreign publication has much more bearing on the intrinsic merits of Medvedev’s book than it has on Solzhenitsyn’s. It is a book that should have been born at home if it was to be convincing. “Gulag” is a vigorous bastard that might have been fostered out anywhere without damage to its integrity. But Medvedev’s book is debased within itself by being born illegitimately. It is shot through with the spurious light of the false dawn in which it was conceived. If it had been born at home and had entered honourably and officially into Soviet political literature then the dawn would not have been false. But its foreign birth lays heavy emphasis on the illusory character of its viewpoint.
Viewpoint is all-important in relation to the subject matter with which Medvedev is dealing. The communist writers who overlap the Stalin period – who were writing before 1953 and who continued to write after 1956 – must be said to lack a viewpoint. All that it would have been appropriate for these post-Stalin anti-Stalinists to have said was, in the words of the 147th sonnet:
- “My thoughts and my discourse as madmen’s are.
- At random from the truth vainly expressed;
- For I have sworn thee fair and thought thee bright.
- Who art as black as hell, as dark as night”.
Since they did not say that, it would have been more becoming if they had shut up. But since they were accustomed to write, and had the means of publishing what they wrote, they carried on writing. When one now hears reference to the “autonomy of discourse”, one immediately thinks of Palme Dutt’s editorials in Labour Monthly. The flow of discourse had become sufficient unto itself, and it carried on regardless of the collapse of the political framework in which it had originated and which had sustained it for thirty years. Indeed, the collapse of the political framework made it imperative that the accustomed manner of discourse be maintained. Without the chant of discourse there would have been nothing.
Prior to 1956 the discourse was not autonomous. It consisted of a set of definite ideas about the world. Those ideas may have been inaccurate to a considerable degree, but they were also different in kind from the chant that took over in 1956 as a substitute for ideas.
One can understand why Dutt, J.R, Campbell etc. threw in the towel in 1956 and found refuge in autonomous discourse. How could they possibly have found a viewpoint from which to say anything definite? For thirty years they had sworn him fair and thought him bright who was now revealed to be as black as hell, as dark as night. When this happens with relation to a sexual object one can write a sonnet, or turn to politics, but if it happens with relation to a political object with which the lives of millions are involved, what does one do? One fantasises, it seems – one becomes an autonomous discourser. It would seem that the matter was too grave to elicit a serious response. When the best years of one’s life have been spent in swearing him fair one would need to be a very remarkable person indeed to find within oneself the resources to cope in a politically coherent way with the revelation that he was a monster in human form. Nobody did. Nobody even asked himself how he could have made such a mistake, and demanded a coherent answer. All took refuge in that most pathetic and miserable of excuses – they had been misled. It was not that they had made a mistake through the use of their own faculties. Their own vital forces had been uninvolved. In thirty years they had not even made a mistake. Idols had been presented to them and they had worshipped: idols were broken before them and they denounced. Those who made mistakes were those behind the scenes who produced false appearances. In the auditorium one had to rely on the good faith of the stage managers. If they presented evil bearing a virtuous mask before it one could not fairly be accused of praising evil when one praised the virtuous mask.
If the excuses were true, they should have been uttered with a most profound sense of shame. As excuses, they are worthy only of debased serfs. The least they indicate is that the excuser does not belong to a reputable form of humanity – that he has sold his human birthright for something that is infinitely more despicable than a bowl of porridge. But the excuses were uttered without shame – and there are no good grounds for believing them to be true.
The mistake which they made – or the deception which was practised on them – was not only enormous but it is virtually inconceivable as a mistake or deception. It is only reasonable to assume that when they supported Stalin they were not unaware of much of what was “revealed” to them in 1956.
It is scarcely credible that they should have been deceived. To assume that they were deceived is to assume that they were infinitely gullible. The flow of information about the matters on which they claim to have been deceived did not begin in 1956. In fact, very little in the way of hard information came from the Central Committee of the CPSU in 1956. What happened at the 20th Congress was not that a mass of evidence was presented to them which compelled them to recognise that they had been monstrously deceived for thirty years. The effect of what was said was overwhelming, but it did not overwhelm through a piling up of indisputable factual evidence. What happened was in its way similar to the opening of the Nazi concentration camps in 1945. In Germany facts were suddenly revealed which had been widely unknown, with demoralising effect on German public opinion. But the immediate and overwhelming impact of the 20th Congress on the Communist leaders in the West is not explicable in that way. What strikes one most forcibly about the affair is how little there was in the way of factual revelation to produce such a remarkable effect. It is as if the facts were simply taken for granted, as having been common knowledge all along. What happened essentially was not that facts were revealed to them of which they had previously been unaware, hut that it was indicated to them that they should change their attitude towards facts of which they were already aware.
Medvedev’s book is distinguished not only from the writings of his colleagues (at the time when he wrote it) in the CPSU, but also from those of writers in Western CPs, by its genuine naivete. The 20th and 22nd Congresses were for him authentic revelations about the past, and therefore marked the beginning of a new order of things. He is consumed with a desire to fill out the history of what went wrong, to discover exactly how it was that the greatest revolution in history should, within a couple of years of the death of the greatest revolutionary in history, have fallen into the clutches of the greatest criminal in history. He wants to know in detail exactly how it was that Stalin could commit such crimes, and how it was that the Party of Lenin should have glorified him to the end of his long and active life. Medvedev is genuinely curious about all of this – and this curiosity sets him apart from the Dutts, Rothsteins and Monty Johnstones.
Medvedev regards Stalinism as a monstrous aberration on Leninism, both in theory and in political practice, and he treats Stalin as a fascinatingly complex monster. In Let History Judge he meditates obsessively on the monstrous aberration but says virtually nothing about the system on which it is an aberration. The system is implicitly postulated, but only the aberration is dealt with empirically. Nothing is communicated about the system except a moral feeling that it was good. One is left to suppose that Lenin established a functional social system, or at least, a political system, on which Stalinism developed as a monstrous excrescence. The trouble with this is that it sets up Leninism as a moral ideal with which to judge the actuality of the Stalin period only by constituting a historical blank around the period 1917-23. The moral force of the ideal is thereby undermined. If Medvedev had demonstrated the existence of an empirically functioning system in 1917-23, compared with which the actuality of the Stalin period stood out clearly as a monstrous perversion, the moral power of his criticism of Stalin would be multiplied infinitely. As it is, it is high on morality but low on power.
But even though Medvedev only establishes Leninism as a critical ideal, he himself takes it seriously as historical reality. He declares that, like Stalin, “Mao Tse-tung also has a tendency to confuse reality and his frenzied perception of it” (p.454). But it must be said that where Lenin is concerned he himself tends to confuse historical reality with his own moral conception of it. (And is it worse to confuse reality with one’s conceptions or perceptions?) He imagines his moral ideal to be a political system which existed in 1917-23. But he is not a charlatan. The charlatans take care not to go too deeply into these matters, but confine themselves to devising pious formulations. Medvedev, however, tries to figure out in detail how Stalinism as he conceives it could have taken over from Leninism as he conceives it. “It was a historical accident that Stalin, the embodiment of all the worst elements in the Russian revolutionary movement, came to power after Lenin, the embodiment of all that was best.” (p.362)
But how was it that such an improbable accident happened? If a Leninist system as he conceives it actually existed how was it that such a monstrous accident could happen within it? How could the Party leadership, so carefully selected and cultivated by Lenin over twenty years, have allowed it to happen? (But that is stating it too mildly. Did not the Leninist party leadership cause Stalin to assume power: did it not bring him to power?) “Why did the Party allow it?” is the refrain of the book.
The problem of how a monster could have come to power within an ideal which is imagined to have been an existing system is insoluble because it is an unreal problem. But it must be said that Medvedev sets about solving it with a gusto that is refreshing when one is accustomed to Stalin- criticism of the Monty Johnstone variety – which is debarred from honest thought by the fact that it is obliged for reasons of honour to pretend that there was a massive revelation of previously unavailable information in 1956, and thereby to misrepresent its own previous relationship with Stalinism.
Medvedev devotes a great deal of space to an attempt to envisage the monster as a person. This begins on the first page, where we are told that “even today, among old Bolsheviks of Georgia and Azerbaijan stories are told of young Djugashvili’s nastiness toward his Party comrades, his mother, his family, and his acquaintances”, and it continues right to the end. Stalin, it would seem, was born a little monster. The mark of the evil one (or whatever its materialist equivalent is) was evident on him from birth. He was unsociable, uncouth and vindictive. In his youth, “Stalin was capable not only of cursing a fellow committeeman but even of throwing a stool at him.” (p.4) Even in exile he was nasty and quarrelsome. Furthermore, he was known to sing indecent songs in mixed company. And, above all, he was uneducated. (Medvedev is an immensely kulturni person, with a delightfully quaint view of the uneducated as people who are in the grip of base passions and consumed with a sense of inferiority). In both personal and political relations he was so thoroughly nasty that one begins to wonder how he survived childhood, let alone how he rose in Lenin’s time to the top of what Medvedev refers to with naive pride of caste as the best educated government in Europe, the Bolshevik Central Committee. The answer seems to be that, like the Antichrist, he had an exceptional ability to disguise himself as an entirely different sort of person. Indeed, so effectively did he disguise his true nature, both in personal and political relations, that his assumed personality played no small part in his rise to pre-eminence among Lenin’s colleagues. He not only impressed his colleagues as being both thoughtful and purposeful, said Medvedev, he even struck them as being “charming “.
Medvedev will not have it that Stalin was corrupted by power. His personality was constant throughout. It was corrupt throughout, and was engaged in comprehensive duplicity throughout.
Politically, Stalin was incompetent. His earliest writings contain “a number of serious errors” (p.4), and he “remained to the end of his life an uneducated man” – and in Medvedev’s view of education, that is about as bad as can be. “In fact, Stalin was not a Marxist.” (p.333) Indeed, “Stalin can hardly be considered a revolutionary in essence. He was only a fellow-traveller of the revolution.” (p.334) How was it, then, that he made his way into the inner circle of a leadership that was so cultured, and so educated, and so accomplished in Marxism? “Of course, Stalin often wrote and spoke like a Marxist … But he was never a Marxist in essence …” (p.333)
So he mimicked Marxism, and all the accomplished Marxists mistook the mimicry for the real thing. (He looked like one, sounded like one, and by golly, he wasn’t one!) Medvedev presents a long list of Stalin’s errors prior to 1917, headed by his 1903 disagreement with Lenin on the agrarian question, and declares that in later years “Stalin writes indulgently about these mistakes“(p.4). But how can his 1903 disagreement with Lenin on the agrarian question be considered simply a mistake? He advocated the distribution of the land to the peasants, while Lenin advocated land nationalisation, and the actual agrarian policy which brought the Bolsheviks to power in 1917 was closer to Stalin’s 1903 policy than to Lenin’s (Rosa Luxemburg was appalled by Lenin’s change of agrarian policy in 1917).
“After the Revolution of 1906, Stalin assumed a conciliatory attitude towards attacks on the philosophy of Marxism“, and throughout the period between the revolutions he opposed Lenin’s sharp sectarian divisiveness against wandering tendencies within Bolshevism. In March 1917, before Lenin’s return, he caused Pravda [the main Bolshevik newspaper] to adopt a reformist attitude towards the Provisional Government, he was conciliatory towards the Mensheviks, and he favoured a broad socialist government. “Even after Lenin’s return to Russia, Stalin … continued for some time to oppose his celebrated April Theses. The theses were published in Pravda on April 7, and on April 8 the paper carried an article by Kamenev that, with Stalin’s complete support, harshly and dogmatically criticised Lenin’s brilliant ideas.” (p.8) Between March and October “Stalin committed a number of errors in evaluating the current situation.” He differed little from Trotsky about the desirability of cloaking the insurrection with Soviet legality. He remained unmoved by Lenin’s impatience. And when Lenin demanded that Zinoviev and Kamenev be expelled from the Party, “the only one who spoke against this demand was Stalin.” (p.11) In 1918 “he vacillated when the peace of Brest Litovsk was discussed”. And when he took control at Tsaritsyn he acted in many ways “contrary to Lenin’s instructions”. And so it goes on, right up to Socialism in one Country. In 1921-2 Lenin reassessed this question and opened up the prospect of “socialism in one country”. But, “many of the party leaders did not pay proper attention to Lenin’s new approach to this problem, and continued as before to assert that it was impossible to build a socialist society in a single country, and a backward one at that. Stalin was a leader of this type”, and in the first edition of Leninism rejected the possibility. “Later, in 1925, Stalin reconsidered his point of view.” (p.45)
“It must be noted that Stalin, while continually agitating against Lenin, never took part in one of the open and ‘official’ opposition groups. At the decisive moment he always withdrew his objections and invariably appeared among the majority. It is difficult to believe this was due only to the persuasiveness of Lenin’s arguments.” (p.15)
But a very different sort of conclusion is possible. When the present writer read Stalin’s Collected Works it occurred to him that Lenin was exceptionally fortunate in having one independently minded and politically capable colleague. Trotsky made a great fuss about having been Lenin’s equal, unlike the other members of the Central Committee who were messenger boys – while also taking great pride in the fact that in 1922 Lenin chose him to be his messenger boy when he decided to remove Stalin from the General Secretaryship: and a pretty incompetent messenger boy he proved to be! But Trotsky was not a competent politician, nor were the other CC members with the exception of Stalin. They had various particular abilities which made them competent heads of departments. But when it came to the general directing of the party or state they could only echo Lenin or engage in futile disputes with him. In this sphere only Stalin was his own man. He was never Lenin’s echo, and never engaged in futile disputes. He kept his disagreements within the bounds of political practicability. If he had not “vacillated” over Brest-Litovsk he would have been a dead soul. Brest-Litovsk was the beginning of socialism in one country, and was furthermore a concession to the enemy of large tracts of that country. On the other hand, if he had continued to oppose the treaty on the basis of principle without being able to propose a workable alternative – in the manner of Bukharin and Trotsky – he would not have been a politician.
Stalin took a perfectly matter-of-fact view of his disagreements with Lenin – Lenin was mostly right but was sometimes wrong, and in his disagreements with Lenin he had been sometimes right and sometimes wrong. Nobody else in the Bolshevik leadership was capable of regarding things like that. Neither is Medvedev. He discovers errors by discovering disagreements with Lenin. It is axiomatic for our creative Marxist that to have disagreed with Lenin is to have been in error. He declares that Stalin is a dogmatic vulgariser of Marxism, but it is significant that he turns a blind eye to the most dogmatic thing that Stalin ever wrote. About 1930 Stalin clamped down on some historians who were investigating some pre-revolutionary disputes involving Lenin, and declared that it should be taken as an axiom that Lenin was right. And that is fine with Medvedev.
But let us return to the story. Stalin was a vindictive, uneducated boor who passed himself off on his associates as a Marxist. Was he also a Tsarist police agent? Trotsky suggested that he might have been. Medvedev flirts with the suggestion, and rejects it in such a way as to reflect even further discredit on Stalin. Even Tsarist agents need a sort of integrity. “Stalin did not serve the tsarist secret police; he served only himself and his insatiable ambition.”(p.232) He wasn’t even a Tsarist agent!
“Historians have often been obliged to turn to psychiatry, for history offers many cases of rulers with abnormal minds.”(p. 305) So was Stalin a lunatic? The answer would seem to be that insofar as it is bad to be a lunatic be was, but insofar as a lunatic cannot be held responsible for his actions he wasn’t. He was not even a proper lunatic! He was a sort of sane lunatic. He “took on the characteristic features of paranoid psychopathology“, yet “he was beyond doubt a responsible man … fully aware of what he was doing … For all his suspiciousness and mistrust Stalin acted with great self-control.” (p.306) He was a bad man, and he knew he was bad, and he liked being bad.
But how did this mess of attributes function in such a way as to pass itself off on Lenin’s contemporaries as Lenin’s heir? Was it “centred” (to use an Althusserian term), or was it, like history itself, a “process without a subject”? Was there a person there at all? When one has begun to suspect that what is known as Stalin was an incongruous assembly of bits and pieces which no subjectivity could conceivably have organised into the semblance of a human being, Medvedev declares that there was quite a remarkable person there:
“It is not hard to imagine a man with weak nerves, mistrustful and fearful, finding himself at the head of the only socialist state in the world. Such a man would begin to see enemies and conspiracies everywhere. He would thrash about, not knowing what to do, wind up killing his best and most devoted friends, surrendering the country to a small group of incompetent but ambitious adventurers who knew how to win his confidence. But Stalin bore no resemblance to such a leader. He was unquestionably a man of strong nerves, inflexible will, and iron self-control. He had a forceful personality, which was, to a great extent, the secret of his influence over those around him” (p. 304)
“What, then, were the basic motives of Stalin’s crimes? The first and most important was undoubtedly Stalin’s measureless ambition.” (p.324)
But ambition alone does not explain the mass repression:
“We must take into account not only the ambition but also the cruelty and viciousness of Stalin. We must also note the contradiction between Stalin’s limitless ambition and his limited abilities … From his early years Stalin had an inferiority complex. Combined with ambition and vanity, it engendered spiteful envy. Without any serious or systematic education, knowing no foreign languages, he became in 1917 a member of a government that was called … the best educated in Europe. Surrounded by brilliant people, Stalin must have felt his inferiority as a political leader, a theorist, and an orator. Hence his envy toward every truly educated party intellectual. He wanted not only unlimited power but also unlimited glory.”(p.326)
He not only knew he was bad, he also knew he was inferior. Even when he had fraudulently passed himself off on the true Leninists as Lenin’s heir and even when all the truly educated intellectuals were hanging on his every word, he knew that they were all better than he was. Even when he was laying down what was taught in school he knew that he was inferior to the students who were moulding their minds on his, because they were being truly educated and he was uneducated. When he achieved undisputed personal power of such a degree that even measureless ambition could no longer have an object, he set about decimating the Party cadres because he knew that he was inferior to them. So it would seem that, even though he was a boor who made a virtue of boorishness, he secretly judged himself by the standards of truly cultured people, and knowing that he could never be one of them he set about killing them. In short, he was a figure straight out of a second-rate Victorian novelette, a pervert because he was not born a gentleman and was not content to be one of the deserving poor.
Having meditated at great length on Stalin as a unique monster, Medvedev suddenly declares him to be typical of a certain unsavoury though widespread kind of revolutionary: the lower class and uneducated revolutionary who has a class interest in the revolution, as contrasted with the upper class revolutionary who is motivated entirely by noble ideas. Gorky, he writes:
“distinguished … two types of revolutionary: the revolutionary for all time and the revolutionary for this day. The first type is essentially promethean, dissatisfied in any social system … The second has a keen feeling for the wrongs of contemporary society and accepts current revolutionary ideas, but ‘in the whole structure of his feelings he remains a conservative. He presents the sorry, often tragicomic spectacle of a being who seems to have been put on earth to take the cultural, humanitarian, all-human content of revolutionary ideas and to distort and degrade them … He feels offended above all for himself, for the fact that he is not talented, not strong, that he has been sullied, even for the fact that he has been in jail … He thinks he is completely emancipated, but inside he is chained by the heavy conservatism of zoological instincts, fathered by a thick mess of petty grudges which he has no power to rise above … He is a cold fanatic, an ascetic; he emasculates the creative force of the revolutionary idea.’
“Gorky’s definition of a revolutionary for this day, astonishing in its pointed precision, is completely applicable to Stalin. It is strange that Gorky himself did not notice this; in the thirties he was very close to Stalin,” (pp.335-6)
“It was not love for suffering humanity … that brought Stalin to the Revolution. Stalin … clearly saw the impossibility of ’making a career’ in the Russian Empire. That, at bottom, is what drove Stalin into the ranks of the revolutionaries.” (p.337)
Two comments on this: Revolutions are perfectly possibly without the participation of the “Prometheans”, but are utterly impossible without the extensive participation of “revolutionaries for this day” whose development is thwarted by the established system. Secondly, Gorky did not in later years recognise his tirade against the degraded “revolutionary for this day” as being applicable to Stalin because it was in the first place applied to Lenin. Medvedev does not give away this little fact, but the source he gives is Novaya Zhizn 1917, and it is certainly the case that in 1917-18 Gorky published in Novaya Zhizn a continuous tirade along these lines against Bolshevism: the Bolsheviks were debasing the revolutionary idea by harnessing it to the resentments of the lower depths, and were threatening to deluge culture with an upsurge of boorishness.
In 1917-18 Gorky raised his voice in defence of culture and civilisation against the unspeakable untermenschen whom Bolshevism was unleashing against society. When the untermenschen triumphed decisively he went abroad so that he could remain cultured. And when a few years later he got lonely, reconciled himself to the inevitability of Bolshevism and returned to Russia, he tacitly acknowledged the utter irrelevance of his 1917 tirades. There was certainly no reason why he should think of them as applying particularly to Stalin.
This incident demonstrates what a trivial thing Medvedev’s “culture” is, and what his education amounts to. It is all mere pretentiousness. It is culture in the refined sense that is only good for chit-chat. As for his true education, unless he discards it he will necessarily remain incoherent on the subject of the revolution. His little framework of assumptions and affectations is pathetically inadequate to the subject to which he is applying it. Solzhenitsyn, who has left all this scholar’s culture far behind him, only ever refers to Medvedev in terms of intellectual contempt. The contempt is deserved. The Gorky incident is only one of many that could be quoted in demonstration of Medvedev’s intellectual triviality. And yet, in his own circle, in the Khrushchevite circle, he is quite remarkable. He plunges on naively and incoherently into matters which his more prudent confreres try to gloss over with formulas.
We have so far followed him in his reflections about the monster. He next proceeds to worry about how the monster took over the posited “Leninist system” and perverted it, despite all the posited sound Leninism of the party. Thereafter he flounders around in the question of how the Stalinist aberration related to the Leninist system on which it was an aberration. Was the system itself perverted, or was the aberration merely an excrescence on the system? He concludes that it was an excrescence, and that the Leninist system had continued its development beneath the excrescence It follows from such a conclusion that the posited Leninist system of socialist democracy will come into its own fairly easily once the Stalinist excrescence has been lanced. Medvedev’s second book, On Socialist Democracy, is quite optimistic in this respect. He sees himself as the spokesman of a powerful and growing trend within the party leadership.
But things did not work out like that. By the mid-seventies he had scaled down his expectations considerably (Detente and Socialist Democracy). and virtually recognised that the posited Leninist system of socialist democracy was not making its presence felt, and that what he had taken to be an excrescence was in fact the functioning system that had been there throughout. Faced then with the choice of opposing the system (as distinct from remedying a perversion of it) or supporting it and hoping for some small gradual changes within it, he opted for the latter. His latest book, Khrushchev (1977), is a quite resigned account of how a mirage evaporated. There is much that is of interest in this evolution, which will be dealt with in a future article.
THE COMMUNIST: July 1978
In the first article of this series we looked at Medvedev’s picture of Stalin as a person who was inordinately ambitious, though of mediocre ability; who was uneducated and therefore subject to base passions and jealousies; who was entirely lacking in moral sense; who displayed many symptoms of madness but was short of the integrity and irresponsibility required of a lunatic; who was not sufficiently principled even to be a Tsarist police agent; who was not a Marxist though he counterfeited Marxism; who was not a revolutionary but merely a fellow-traveller of the revolution; who was capable of such comprehensive duplicity that, throughout his career he presented an appearance that was fundamentally at variance with his essence; and who was typical of that vulgar sort of revolutionary who is drawn to the revolution by class interest, as distinct from the noble and educated revolutionaries constituting the main part of the Bolshevik leadership who were motivated by feelings of sheer benevolence towards humanity.
One would expect, therefore, that when Medvedev turns his attention to the struggles within the Party after Lenin’s death, his sympathies would lie with Stalin’s opponents within the leadership. If the cultured, capable and moral Leninist leadership which he posits did not include Bukharin, Zinoviev, Kamenev, Trotsky, Radek etc., then where was it? If the Leninist political system which Stalin supplanted actually existed, it can only have been located in the opposition groups. One expects Medvedev to represent Stalin ‘s struggle against his opponents as a struggle against Leninism, especially since he declares that
“In 1917 there was no one to take the place of Lenin. But in the twenties and thirties there were several leaders who could have headed the Party and led it forward much faster and better than Stalin. This must be taken into consideration when we evaluate Stalin’s role in history.” (p.565)
If there were several leaders better fitted to lead the Party (why did they not do so?), then surely it would have been better if they had defeated Stalin. These better leaders did not, presumably, have lurking within them the will to create mayhem once they had achieved power through useful political work, which Medvedev attributes to Stalin.
Medvedev does not indicate who these several better leaders were. But since he does not support Stalin’s opponents in the power struggles after the death of Lenin, it seems that they were not in the Party leadership.
“Stalin was not simply crafty: he was a man of unusual hypocrisy. He achieved a great deal by his ability to put on any mask.” (Let History Judge, p.330) But it would seem that in certain very substantial respects the mask takes precedence over the man.
“While it is a mistake to consider Stalin a superman of invincible will, it is also wrong to regard him simply as an ambitious, sadistic hypocrite who gained control of the Party by intrigues and crimes. Both as a person and as a leader, Stalin was a much more complex and contradictory figure.” (p.333)
It would seem that the virtuous mask was not merely a facade which the monster bore before him in order to disarm opposition to his monstrous purposes, but that mask and monster were involved in a complex dialectical relationship with one another.
“Some are now trying to vindicate certain opposition leaders, on the grounds that they were correct and bold, though unsuccessful, in their criticism of Stalin. Their point of view is understandable, but not accurate. Because Stalin, after winning the fight against the opposition, usurped all power in the country and then wiped out most of his former opponents and allies, it does not follow that Stalin was completely in the wrong in his struggle with the opposition or that his opponents were completely right. It would also be wrong to imitate bourgeois historians who depict the fight between the different groups as only an unprincipled struggle for power, masked by theoretical arguments to deceive the workers … there were also serious theoretical and practical disagreements and a contest of ideas.”(p.31)
Medvedev does not say that Lenin’s parting injunction that the inner circle of the party leadership, the Politburo, should hang together as an oligarchy was acted upon more consistently and prudently by Stalin than by any of the other leaders. To say such a thing would be to make nonsense of the vision of Stalin which he has previously expounded. But he comes very close to saying it – or rather, he says it incoherently: he mumbles it to satisfy his intellectual conscience but hopes that it won’t be heard.
He has little sympathy with Trotsky, declaring that his sudden concern for democracy in 1924 “smelled of demagogy“, and holding his “poorly disguised ambition to lead the party” responsible for the first split in the leadership. (p.35) Of course, to distinguish himself from the Stalin school of falsification, he points to Trotsky’s “eminently useful work” in 1917. But this is mere waffle. Medvedev, the cultured historian concerned only with the truth in all its subtle particulars, does far less justice to Trotsky than did Stalin, who was a politician in dispute with him. It is true that Trotsky was an ambitious demagogue of a certain kind, but that accounts more for his behaviour prior to 1924 than for his behaviour in 1924. There is no doubting that, when Lenin ceased to mediate reality for him, Trotsky became appalled at the prospect of continuing what had been begun. But for Medvedev this is simply not an issue: “socialism in one country” is revealed truth disclosed by Lenin in 1922-3, and in 1924 Stalin and Trotsky are both at fault in failing to recognise it!
Medvedev is also grossly unfair to Trotsky in another respect:
“In the Soviet revolution, some people preached – and sometimes practised – the proposition that the revolutionary goal justifies any methods … The Civil War was accompanied not only by historically justified forms of revolutionary violence but also by superfluous cruelty … Trotsky … frequently misused violence. To deal with a regiment that quit its battle position and refused to obey orders, Trotsky ordered that the commander, the commissar and every tenth man … be shot. (The tenth-man technique derives from the military technique of the ancient Romans).” (p.396)
A Lenin-cult may be more uplifting than a Stalin-cult, but it is none the less a cult. Medvedev denounces the Stalin cult as if he were opposed to cults as such, but in the same process he sets up a Lenin cult towards a piously falsified image of Lenin. He constructs a Lenin-myth designed to exert what he conceives to be a moral influence on contemporary Soviet politics, and in the service of this pious fraud he projects onto others than Lenin certain forms of activity carried on by the Bolsheviks in 1917-23.
He declares that Leninism includes an autonomous moral element. Stalin is disqualified from being a Marxist on moral grounds. “Some objective criteria of morality are above the practice of a given moment and set the limits of the choice of methods.”(p.401) And Trotsky’s tenth man method of establishing discipline, with its lack of concern for individual justice, is one such method. To cap it all Medvedev declares that, through the cult, “Stalin was actually putting into effect some ideas of very early opportunists, such as the ‘god-builders‘, who sought to make a god of ‘the collective power of humanity.‘“(p.151)
The idea of an autonomous moral sphere certainly existed in the Russian socialist movement, but not in its Bolshevik strain. It was Bolshevism that most rigorously subordinated morality to political interest. Bolsheviks who tended towards the idea of a morality independent of politics tended to part company with Lenin and to join with the Mensheviks. There was a strain of Kantian Socialism, of ethical socialism, within Menshevism, but Lenin did his damnedest to prevent such a thing from developing within Bolshevism.
The “god-builders” were a variety of ethical socialists who sprang up within Bolshevism in the political recession following 1905, and on whom Lenin made war. Some of Medvedev’s favourite quotes come from the god-builders. Gorky’s description of Bolshevism in 1917 (which Medvedev quotes as an apt description of Stalin, without mentioning its original object), comes from that stable, Bogdanov, another god-builder, has also made a distinct impression on him. And his favourite Bolshevik (apart from the mythical Lenin), Lunacharsky, was also a god-builder.
That being so, it is intellectually contemptible for Medvedev to dismiss the god-builders as “early opportunists”, and he commits the sin against the Holy Ghost when he declares that Stalin’s system gave effect to their ideas.
If one postulates a moral sphere independent of politics one lays the ground for what are known as dilemmas. If a desirable end is only achievable by morally impermissible means, there is a dilemma. If the army which is necessary to the maintenance of the state can only be made to fight by use of methods which may not be used, that is a dilemma. There is no evidence that Lenin experienced dilemmas. There is nothing in his writings to suggest that he was even capable of experiencing dilemmas. The truth is that dilemmas belong to the sphere of individual life and are not sustainable at the level of society. The individual may forgo his heart’s desire because the means necessary to achieve it strike him as dishonourable, but states are something else. Lenin had reflected much on such matters, and it does not seem that he ever confused the one sphere with the other; and when his moment came he took to statecraft like a duck to water. (Of course, he sometimes make concessions to old friends like Gorky, whom it would be useful to string along, and who kept on confusing the personal with the political; but that too has its place in statecraft.) Rough methods, even what might appear at the individual level to be politically indiscriminate methods, were necessary, therefore they were used.
It might be that a particular tenth man had behaved much better than the ninth man. Indeed, given the random character of the method, that was almost certainly the case in many instances. If the outraged tenth man asserted his outrage by shooting Trotsky one could only admire his integrity. But it is beyond dispute that the tenth man method may be the only effective method. It can certainly exercise a most stimulating effect on the surviving nine-tenths. Medvedev condemns it but does not show that Trotsky had recourse to it when effective methods of a more humane kind might have been used.
If it was wrong to use such methods, then it is not Trotsky or Stalin who should be condemned, but Lenin. Lenin was not out there shooting innocent tenth men to encourage the others, but it is inconceivable that he should have been ignorant of the means that were so widely in use in defence of the revolution, and the central responsibility for them was undoubtedly his. It was he who had browbeaten a reluctant Party leadership into taking power, into excluding other parties from government, and into making whatever concessions to German imperialism were necessary in order to maintain power. If he held certain means to be impermissible, then it was his business to spell them out and to ensure that they were not used. It is the most miserable and dishonourable sort of dishonesty to try to shift responsibility in these matters from Lenin onto his subordinates.
But we digress. Medvedev holds Trotsky responsible for the first split in the oligarchy, even though he does less than justice to the grounds of Trotsky’s behaviour. And he says that Trotsky’s policies were wrong even though some of his criticisms and warnings were right. Then comes the Zinoviev/Kamenev opposition: and here again “the features of an unprincipled political quarrel can be found in the attacks on Stalin.“(p.41) Zinoviev was unscrupulous, vain and egoistic. “Stalin was not well educated in theory and was not popular in the party. Both Zinoviev and Kamenev depicted themselves as veterans of the Bolshevik party.” They tried to use Stalin against Trotsky, but “Stalin turned out to be much craftier than Zinoviev.” (p.43) So they tried to down Stalin. In this unprincipled struggle their policies were wrong but some of their warnings were right.
Next comes the United Opposition (a merger of the first two).
“The Opposition leaders in the heat of polemics exaggerated the country‘s shortcomings … They depicted tendencies as well developed processes … At a time when only a small part of the party leadership was touched by degeneration, the opposition was speaking of the degeneration of the entire Party … The opposition resorted to exaggeration to discredit the Central Committee majority and remove Stalin … This might have been a worthy goal, in view of the harm Stalin later did the Party. But Stalin’s political opponents were too hasty with their attack, striking at Stalin in conditions unfavourable to themselves.”(p.55-6)
The suggestion here that the United Opposition was wrong only because it was tactically ineffective is contradicted by another statement:
“Despite some correct criticism and proposals, the platform of the ‘united’ opposition was wrong.”(p.54)
Medvedev claims that Bukharin rather than Stalin “was responsible for most of the theoretical struggle with these oppositions” (p.64), and for the general formulations of policy in the mid-twenties. This would seem to indicate that Bukharin represented Leninism, but when we come to 1928 it turns out quite inexplicably that the non-Marxist fellow-traveller of the revolution was once again not in the wrong in his split with the admirable Bukharin. Having been told earlier about how admirably Marxist Bukharin was, we are here reminded about his “intellectual scholasticism”, and told that
“Bukharin’s understanding of NEP was debatable to say the least. He did not have a clear concept of the kulak as an active opponent of the construction of socialism … Today some historians try to picture the agricultural policies of Bukharin’s group as the only correct one … I do not take such a stand… In Bukharin’s writings there is no clear, precise answer to the question of how to move the peasant village toward socialism.” (p.66)
Where then was the Leninist in the Leninist system which Stalin perverted? Only one answer is now possible. Stalin, the great counterfeiter, functioned as the Leninist leader of the system in 1923-28, in order that he should later be able to pervert it. He acted consistently and capably as a Leninist in order that all those educated and morally principled men who were Lenin’s colleagues should have the opportunity to develop their weaknesses and discredit themselves, and in order that he should finally stand alone in the oligarchy as Lenin’s heir and be in a position to distort Leninism and to take his revenge on all those men who were better than he was and whom he had run rings around.
Medvedev has a chapter on “The Conditions Facilitating Stalin’s Usurpation of Power“. Since he is not a “schematic” Marxist but a creative one, he does not of course say clearly when this usurpation occurred. But it would seem to have been after 1928 – which is to say that Stalin achieved power legitimately in the first place and then he usurped it. One gathers that the usurpation took place before 1936. But, having usurped his legitimate power in the early thirties, he proceeded in 1936-38 to usurp his usurped power, and “the unlimited dictatorship that he established after was without historical precedent.” (p.355)
“Stalin was not planning to restore the monarchy or to bring back the landowners and capitalists. He was trying to combine the new social system with an anti-democratic regime of absolute personal power, in this respect his usurpation of power can be compared to Napoleon’s.” But,
“Napoleon, acting in the interests of the bourgeoisie and supported by it, behaved openly and proclaimed himself Emperor. Stalin’s usurpation of power, on the other hand, in no way corresponded to the interests of the proletariat, and he was forced to resort to camouflage and deception.” (p.358)
“Napoleon discarded revolutionary phraseology as he secured one-man rule. Stalin behaved differently, masking his usurpation of power in ultra-revolutionary phrases. Thus he secured the support of the people, without which even such a despot as Stalin could not have maintained himself. And he was obliged to refrain from complete subversion of socialist principles.” (p.376)
The reason why Stalin’s absolute power was historically unprecedented, then, would seem to be that, unlike Napoleon’s, it was actively supported by a class to whose interests it in no way corresponded. But lest you should spring to the conclusion that the man who perpetrated such a gigantic confidence trick must be the cleverest politician who ever lived, Medvedev points out that “Stalin was supported by the majority of the Soviet people, not only because he was clever enough to deceive them but also because they were backward enough to be deceived.” (p. 428) While the masses “sooner or later overthrow all sorts of tyrants“, they neglected to do so in this case because they were backward and he was deceptive – so which masses is it that overthrow which tyrants? Advanced masses and honest tyrants!
But Medvedev’s saving grace of making factual observations that are utterly inconsistent with his theoretical notions never deserts him. He will have no truck with the view that the Stalin cult was a petty bourgeois phenomenon.
“Efforts have been made to connect the cult of Stalin with the peculiarities of the Russian peasantry, its Tsarist illusions and religiosity. Some comrades draw a comparison with the French peasants who supported Napoleon.”
But religion still existed when the cult was founded and therefore did not need a substitute.
“Secondly, Stalin’s cult proceeded not from the village to the city but from the city to the village … In the thirties, Stalin’s cult was strongest among workers, especially in the Party stratum of the working class, and also among the new young intelligentsia, particularly those of worker and peasant origin.” (pp. 429-30)
It was, therefore, a working class phenomenon that occurred within the mainstream of revolutionary Bolshevism. Having made that factual observation, Medvedev has exhausted his analytical power and he returns to creating.
But what were the conditions facilitating this very odd usurpation? The main condition would seem to have been the usurpation itself. Because he usurped power he was able to usurp power. He “transformed the Central Committee from an organ of democracy” into something else (p.357). That undoubtedly helped towards the usurpation, but was it not also part of it (assuming against all the evidence that the CC was in the first place an “organ of democracy”)? “Stalin did not repeal the laws of the Soviet regime; he simply did not enforce them.”(p.356) But not enforcing them was also itself part of the usurpation (assuming that “the laws of the Soviet regime” existed in the first place). “One condition that made it easy for Stalin to bend the party to his will was the hugely inflated cult of his personality.” (p.363). Once again, that is not a condition of the postulated usurpation, but part of it.
Medvedev pulls himself together at this point and asks:
“Why did the cult of personality arise…, a strange secular variety of religious consciousness in a socialist society? Why was the cult supported by the Bolshevik party …?” (p.364)
So the cult was religious after all!
“The social consciousness of the people took on elements of religious psychology: illusions, autosuggestion, the inability to think critically, intolerance towards dissidents, and fanaticism. Perceptions of reality were distorted.”(p.363)
That was undoubtedly a useful thing for a bad man to be able to engender in a society. But how could he have brought it about?
“The boundless praise of Stalin did not arise spontaneously; it was organised by Stalin … But it would be naive to attribute the successes of Stalin’s cult only to clever propaganda.” (p.364) “Some historians think that the success of Stalin’s cult was considerably facilitated by the petty bourgeois character of Tsarist Russia, which carried over into the post-revolutionary era … While taking this notion into consideration it would be a mistake to regard the ignorance of the masses or the religious illusions of the peasants as the only preconditions … There were others, inherent in the Revolution itself. It brought such sweeping change in such a short time that the leaders seemed to be miracle makers. Indeed, the tendency of the masses to glorify the leaders appears spontaneously in every mass revolution.” (p.364-5)
Indeed, there was even a Lenin cult, which Lenin said, “I would find it awkward to forbid.” (p.149)
“Paradoxical as it might seem, another important factor explaining the triumph of Stalin’s cult was the crimes he committed. He did not commit them by himself. Taking advantage of the people’s revolutionary enthusiasm and trustfulness … Stalin involved millions of people in his crimes. Not only the punitive organs but the entire Party and government apparat participated actively in the campaigns of the 1930s.”
Stalin induced them to denounce each other as enemies, and he let some of them imprison the others. People sometimes began to have doubts about it all, but they
“could not admit to themselves that they were in some measure accomplices in crimes. So they forced themselves to believe in Stalin.’’ (p.365) Hence, “It was fairly easy for Stalin to convince the Soviet people that he was fighting real enemies.’’ (p.366)
It was a favourite maxim of Lenin’s that classes cannot be deceived. How profoundly mistaken he was!
The Bolshevik Party and Soviet society, in Medvedev’s account, succumbed so easily and so wholeheartedly to the Stalinist deception that the idea that Stalinism was inevitable springs to mind. Medvedev refers to Engels’ warning in The Peasant War about the fate of political revolutions enacted in inappropriate social conditions, and to Plekhanov’s specific warning about such a thing happening in Russia. He quotes a view current within certain circles of the CPSU that: “The whole trouble was that a socialist revolution in a country like Russia was premature … Approximately the same thing is happening today in China and Albania“. And he comments:
“This point of view, as applied to the Soviet Union, is one-sided and incorrect. If the political and social system created after the October Revolution inevitably engendered Stalinism, if history offered no other possibilities of development, if everything was strictly determined, then the October Revolution must also have been determined by the monstrous system of Russian autocracy. Thus we must conclude that the October and February revolutions were not at all premature or accidental events. In other words, to explain Stalinism we have to return to earlier and earlier epochs of Russian history, very likely to the Tartar yoke. But that would be wrong; it would be a historical justification of Stalinism, not a condemnation.” (p.359)
Make sense of that piece of metaphysics if you can. For all his cultured waffle about scholasticism etc., Medvedev reasons teleologically at critical junctures. In his creative investigations of history conclusions are given and they determine which ideas are unacceptable.
But what is inevitability?
“I proceed from the assumption that different possibilities of development exist in almost every political system and situation … Even a small possibility of a given line of development does not constitute an impossibility. From this point of view Stalinism was by no means inevitable, despite the defeats in the political conception that the Bolsheviks brought to the October Revolution, and despite the defeats of the new Soviet regime. It also had many merits. The contest between the various alternatives began under Lenin and was bound to grow more intense. But if he had not died in 1924, the victory of genuinely democratic and socialist tendencies would have been more probable than the victory of Stalinism.” (p.360)
Very well, there is no inevitability. But sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. The rigorous limitations on democratic freedoms which Lenin imposed are justified by Medvedev on the grounds of necessity. But according to the “protocol” which he sets up for judging Stalinism, that is impermissible. If something better is always possible, then so it was for Lenin.
But let us consider that last quote more carefully. It says quite definitely that Stalinism was the victory of one of the alternative lines of development which were in contest in the Lenin period, and that the other line of development would probably have triumphed if Lenin had lived on. At the very least, taking into account what Medvedev has said about Stalin’s rivals in the Party leadership, that makes Stalinism into the line of development produced by Bolshevism minus Lenin. Far from being something extraneous that perverted Bolshevism, it is Bolshevism without Lenin. But, of course, Medvedev does not reason strictly, he reasons creatively, which is to say by use of non-sequiturs.
“If Lenin had lived” is the last refuge of creative Marxists. They prefer not to look too closely at the line of development while Lenin lived. That is because. in the contest between the alternative lines of development under Lenin, the “Stalinist” line always won. The continuity of development between Lenin and Stalin is unmistakeable. But creative Marxism will have it that the continuity belongs to the realm of appearances, and that there was a sharp break of continuity in the realm of essence. Appearance means accomplished political fact: essence means subjective intention. For example, Lenin abolished the freedom of the press. But he intended this to be a temporary expedient for the duration of the civil war. One is left to understand that he was just about to restore press freedom when he died, but the civil war had been won long before he died, so why had he not done it already? And why was it that his references to its temporary character were all made when he was abolishing press freedom, and that in the period between the end of the civil war and his death he was constantly stressing the need to tighten Bolshevik controls on the society, and to tighten and make more effective the control of the inner circle of the Party leadership over the Party? About these matters creative Marxism creates silence.
But one must be fair to Medvedev. He does mention Lenin’s letters to Kursky in 1922 proposing that the Criminal Code be tightened in such a way that non-Bolshevik socialists would be represented as agents of imperialism. He even utters a mild reproof. “The transition to new methods was difficult even for Lenin“, he says, and he comments that the Kursky letters “hardly contributed to the development of the fledgling judiciary.” (p.398) Doesn’t that comment seem inadequate, somehow, after all the moralising about Leninist norms and socialist legality?
It is to Medvedev’s credit that he acknowledges that the conduct of political trials in Lenin’s time was nothing to write home about, especially the great trial of the Socialist Revolutionaries in 1922.
“Of course the Soviet court should have proceeded carefully and objectively. Deliberate crimes had to be distinguished from political mistakes, and the personal responsibility of each leader had to be established, for the SR party was never a tightly centralised operation.”
But even though it “had to”, it was not. “In painful fact, the trial took a very different course.” (p.382). He recounts the tale of one of the defendants, who was a provocateur inserted to confess in such a way as to implicate the others. She was an anarcho-communist who had applied for membership of the Bolshevik Party.
“A peculiar test was set for her: to expose the Right SRs at the trial. She agreed, and today her husband tries to justify her action, which is a disgrace to a true revolutionary.”
The husband is quoted:
“In the interests of the … socialist revolution, she was asked to give her honour as old revolutionaries understood that honour … in a big trial that exposed and destroyed the enemies of the proletarian regime. Soon afterward she was admitted to the CP.” (p.383)
This is a most interesting anecdote, overlapping the Lenin, Stalin and post-Stalin periods. It is all very well for Medvedev to say that she was a disgrace, but can it be honestly said that the thing was not in the spirit of Lenin’s letters to Kursky? Medvedev says that the trial “was evidently organised by Stalin” and that Lenin was uninvolved. But that is only a miserable evasion in the cause of piety.
“If abuses of revolutionary legality were possible during Lenin’s lifetime, it is easy to imagine how quickly they increased once Stalin became leader … Stalin was not the only proponent of such methods: many other leaders and also rank-and-file participants in the Revolution agreed.”(p .398)
“Socialist legality” is an idea that one can grasp. But what is “revolutionary legality”? Medvedev does not make clear what he means. There are two possible meanings: a) a system of laws introduced after the revolution, in the interest of the new ruling class, which is binding on the revolutionary state, and b) a legal system which functions in a revolutionary manner, and which is therefore not a legal system in any meaningful sense. Either the revolutionary state is bound by a system of laws which it has established, or the law operates according to the dictates of the revolutionary state.
In the case of a) the revolutionary character of the state will be curbed, and in the case of b) the individual will not be protected by law against the arbitrary actions of the state. The phrase is usually used in the second sense, and in this sense revolutionary legality is judged according to who is being interfered with by the state, and not how he is being interfered with. Lenin said on occasion that the workers needed means to protect themselves against the workers’ state. He never did anything to establish those means through an independent legal system. Such a system, however carefully its laws were drafted, would provide a refuge for all sorts and descriptions of people, and would undermine the Bolshevik monopoly of power. Lenin was determined that the state which he established would not be bound by laws which provided refuge for his political enemies. He knew very well that the immense social revolution which remained to be accomplished required that the Executive power should be unbound by law.
Stalin’s usurpation was facilitated by the absence of law, says Medvedev. Lenin had intended in 1917 to introduce a “press law”. If the press had operated under an independent law instead of under state censorship the Stalinist usurpation would have been prevented. But the press law has still not seen the light of day. The extreme centralisation of the state also helped Stalin. Once again, Lenin, having brought this centralisation of affairs into being, had intended to break it down again but had not got around to it. And yet again, Lenin had intended to restore power to the Soviets, but unfortunately had not actually done so. “Something must also be said about the party’s monopoly of political activity“(p.381) Same thing.
“Another important factor in explaining Stalinism is the lack of a system for regularly changing the Party and state leadership. Lenin was the chief of the Party continuously for a quarter of a century. But he was also the founder of the Bolshevik Party and the Soviet State; he was a genius of a type that appears in the political arena perhaps once in a century. A different system and other terms of power were necessary for Lenin’s successors.”(p.380)
But where was it to come from?
The conditions facilitating the rise of Stalinism were the conditions established by Lenin for his own direction of the state. How does Lenin’s genius affect the matter? Medvedev implies that because his successors were not comparable geniuses they required more democratic conditions than Lenin for carrying on his work. But the contrary argument would surely be more reasonable.
THE COMMUNIST: August 1978
“Nowadays, when we analyse Stalin’s mistakes and crimes, we are abstracting them from a huge and complex flow of events. The Party … participated in these events, and for many of its members it was hard to abstract Stalin’s crimes and mistakes from the general flow.” (Let History Judge, p.152)
But how successful, many years after the event, is Medvedev in making politically functional abstractions from the “flow of events”?
In the first article in this series we looked at Medvedev’s picture of Stalin as a monstrous fellow-traveller of the revolution, a non-Marxist, an incompetent theorist, a base and uneducated fellow. We saw how, nevertheless, Medvedev could not picture Stalin’s opponents in the inner-Party struggles of 1923-28 as representing the Leninist heritage of the Party. He declares that the various opposition groupings were politically in the wrong. And even though he credits Bukharin with the theoretical and political leadership of the Party from 1923 to i928, he rejects the idea that in the Stalin-Bukharin split: it was Bukharin who was politically in the right. In fact, he makes such a fundamental criticism of Bukharin at this juncture (that he did not understand the NEP, did not conceive of the capitalist peasant as an active opponent of socialism, had no clear idea of how to move the peasantry towards socialism in a predominantly peasant society, and that his theoretical constructions were scholastic and schematic), that his earlier assertion that it was Bukharin who had provided effective political leadership in 1923-28 sounds very strange indeed.
It is a necessary inference of Medvedev’s account of this period that among the Marxists and Leninists on Lenin’s politburo there was no competent politician, nor even a principled one – with the exception of Bukharin, who was perhaps principled though incompetent. The only competent politician was the non-Marxist and non-revolutionary Stalin, who engaged in politics only in order to get himself into the position where he might vent his spite against all and sundry with impunity.
Medvedev says that Stalinism was a monstrous excrescence on the system, and that it was in no sense an evolution of the system. But insofar as he demonstrates anything it is that Stalinism was an evolution of the system, and that the political leadership did not exist that would have made possible a more humane and progressive kind of development. His argument that a democratic line of development was possible is an empty abstraction derived from wishes and fantasies. And when he comes to deal with the effects of Stalinism on the system, he argues in substance that Stalinism was the mode of development of the system, while proclaiming that something else was the case.
Let us begin with the “Lenin levy” in the mid-twenties. Trotsky declared this to be the means by which Stalin flooded the party with backwardness and ignorance. For Trotsky the old Bolsheviks (i.e. the new Bolsheviks of 1917) were sacrosanct. But he did not have to deal in practice with the problem of how to govern, and bring about a social revolution in, this immense society with a Party that was only marginally representative of it. The Lenin levy made the Party more representative of the society, and by the same token vulgarised it somewhat. Medvedev flirts with the old Bolshevik mystique, but cannot go along with it in detail:
“The rapid change in the composition of the working class was bound to affect its psychology and behaviour, and also the composition of the Party, facilitating the degeneration of some parts of the apparat. At the same time, an opposite process was taking place: the transformation of the semi-proletarian masses by the propagation of Marxist-Leninist ideology …” (p.416)
The Lenin levy brought in “hundreds of thousands of inadequately educated workers“(p.424), But he does not suggest that this was instead of adequately educated workers. In 1921 there was virtually no working class. So, either the party remained an unrepresentative oligarchy weakly connected with the mass of the society, or it recruited the new workers who had recently left the peasantry and who had no experience of independent class struggle, and through them got a grip on the society.
As the Party filled itself out in this way, the possibility of any effective kind of political equality between leadership and general membership became unthinkable,
In the proletariat, as in every class, there are
“people who are incapable of thinking, Such individuals are not attracted by the creative essence of Marxism-Leninism. On the contrary, they prefer dogmatism … Although a revolution represents a victory of the new ideas over old dogmas, in time a revolution becomes overgrown with its own dogmas. In tsarist Russia such a tendency was more likely than usual, for a great many revolutionaries lacked education. In such a situation Stalin’s ability to make extreme simplifications of complex ideas was not the least factor in his rise. Many party cadres knew Leninism only in its schematic Stalinist exposition, unaware that Stalin was vulgarising Marxism-Leninism, transforming it from a developing, creative doctrine into a peculiar religion.” (p.418. Could it be that Medvedev is unaware of the religious overtones of “doctrine”?)
That is one way of putting it. But how were hundreds of thousands of newly established workers, whose old world outlook had collapsed, and who were eager to replace it with something better, to be brought into contact with the creative essence of Marxism? Was one to say to them:
“Here are 30 volumes of Lenin and 30 volumes of Marx, along with some odd volumes of Kautsky, Plekhanov, Dietzgen and Labriola, as well as some recent articles by Korsch and Gramsci, and not forgetting Bacon, Spinoza, Kant, Hegel and Feuerbach, and Aristotle, who are the philosophical preconditions of Marxism and are therefore necessary to its comprehension. Put yourself through that mound of literature and you will encounter the creative essence of Marxism. Come back in five years and we will consider your application for Party membership”?
Well, obviously that was not on. So, perhaps the creative essence of Marxism should have been summed up for them in a few pamphlets so that they could orientate themselves both in the world and in the mound of literature recommended to them? But such a summary would necessarily have been schematic, dogmatic, and extremely simplified. (And is the dogmatic exposition of creative essence possible?)
The facile phrasemongering about Stalin’s vulgarisations of Marxism might have been excused by ignorance fifteen or twenty years ago. But today such phrasemongering expresses mindlessness rather than ignorance. The academic cream of Western Europe has during the past fifteen years applied itself to drawing out the creative essence of Marxism. The result is that as many essences have been established as there are creative writers possessing a modicum of intellectual ingenuity. New Left Review was founded twenty years ago as an anti-Stalinist forum for restoring the creative essence of Marxism. Consider how many fashions it has gone through in that time, and how little in the way of political coherence it has established.
If Stalin’s political activity was integral to, and was even central to, “the flow of events”, there is clearly a difficulty about abstracting it from the flow of events in such a way as to be able to assign it a character which is entirely different from the character assigned to the “flow of events”. If, through Stalin, through his schematic vulgarisations of Marxism, the “people who are incapable of thinking” were organised into the rulers of the society, where did that leave Marxism for thirty years? A Marxist-Leninist political system can scarcely have continued to exist in those hectic years in the form of mental reservations. Either Marxism-Leninism was actively involved in achieving what was achieved, or it ceased to exist. And if it was involved, it can only have been under the Stalinist banner.
If “a Stalinist was usually a careerist, who combined arrogance and conceit with political inability and hypocrisy“(p. 542), then presumably a Marxist-Leninist could not be a Stalinist. But if he could not be a Stalinist, how could he have influenced the immense developments of the Stalin period, from which Medvedev wishes to abstract Stalinism?
Furthermore, if political inability was a hallmark of Stalinism, then presumably Stalinism was not responsible for the immense developments of the Stalin period? And if Stalinism was not responsible for those achievements, then no form of organised politics was, since Stalinism established a political monopoly for itself. Assuming that to be the case, how might those developments have occurred? They must have been an achievement of the spontaneous forces of civil society. And this is exactly what is implied in the statement: “Stalin sheltered himself behind a people advancing out of ignorance and backwardness.” (p.372) If he sheltered himself behind them he did not lead them. And if he did not lead them they were not led. And if they were not led to achieve what they achieved, then that achievement must have resulted from the spontaneous action of civil society.
But if civil society was capable of such achievements, despite the incompetent and erratic interference of a state which was enormously powerful (even though motivated by the spiteful inferiority complexes of one man), how was it that such a remarkably developed civil society was incapable of bringing the state into line with itself?
But this is all nonsense. There was no civil society capable of achieving such things through its spontaneous operation. The civil society existing at the point of revolution was obsolete. If civil society had been more advanced the revolution would probably have been stabilised in its bourgeois phase. It was the backwardness of civil society that enabled the Bolshevik usurpation of power to stabilise itself. The kind of social development which the Bolshevik state aimed to bring about could not be achieved in conjunction with the spontaneous forces of civil society. And if the purposeful political activity of the state had to counteract the spontaneous tendencies of civil society in order to bring about social development of a socialist kind, then it is absurd to explain the social development that took place in the late twenties and the thirties as having occurred despite the state. And what makes Medvedev so interesting is that he is clearly aware of that absurdity whilst at the same time being strongly attracted towards it.
Medvedev’s problem is that his education and culture, of which he is so proud, are gravely defective in that they have not entirely deprived him of the ability to reason coherently about the world though they have crippled that ability most severely. He is therefore capable of seeing problems which he is incapable of thinking out systematically. As one reads him one mourns over what he might have been if he had escaped culturing. Thought is a rather barbaric activity.
His formulations are at variance with his descriptions. He sees Stalinism as the development of the Leninist system, as the means through which the people emerged from backwardness and developed themselves into a basically modern society. But he conceives it as an excrescence on the system, or as a terrible shadow which loomed over the people as they developed themselves and which exercised a retarding influence on them. That is why he can never describe what he formulates or formulate what he describes. To derive description from formulation would be intellectually wrong. To derive formulation from description would be morally wrong. Therefore he leaps to and fro from the one to the other in the pious hope that the trajectory of his leap will somehow realise itself as a bridge.
When Medvedev has satisfied the claims of morality by formulating Stalin as a diabolus ex machina, he must leap over into the realm of historical fact:
“It is mistaken to attribute the ideology and the practice of Stalinism only to the international position of the USSR or to Stalin’s personal faults. It is necessary to analyse the social processes that began after the Revolution.” (p.412)
“Several million proletarians were victorious only because they were supported by tens of millions of semi-proletarians and petty-bourgeois elements. It would be naive to think that these petty-bourgeois elements would be completely transformed by several years of revolutionary struggle. It would also be a mistake to idealise the proletariat … Not only in Russia … a good part of the proletariat were infected with petty bourgeois faults … Most professional revolutionaries, who formed the backbone of the party, derived from the intelligentsia, the lesser gentry, or the civil service. These origins did not prevent most of these people from merging heart and soul with the proletariat, directing it, and thus becoming proletarian revolutionaries in the full sense of the word. But by no means all the leaders of the Party experienced such a complete transformation … The fact that many individuals who were not true proletarian revolutionaries became the leaders of the Party after Lenin’s death was therefore not an accident or the result of insufficient wisdom. It was the natural result of a proletarian revolution in a petty-bourgeois country.” (p.414)
And, of course, the development of an actual working class after Lenin’s death in place of the somewhat notional one that existed before his death (and whose notional character he frankly acknowledged) increased its “petty-bourgeois” character, and the Lenin Levy flooded the Party with these new, and not truly proletarian, proletarians. Stalin was representative of this new class of actual workers, which was so disappointing by comparison with the ideal of which it was an attempted realisation:
“Stalin combined the character and ideology of a proletarian revolutionary with those of a petty-bourgeois revolutionary inclined towards degeneration and careerism.” (p.414)
This new and actual proletariat exercised a degenerating influence on the Party while the Party exercised an enlightening influence on it. So be it. Such is the way of the world. But is one to regret that a Party ruling in the name of a proletariat which scarcely existed outside it, and operating under the enlightening influence of the lesser gentry within it, degenerated into a party which was vulgarised by the influence of an actually existing proletariat; or is one to rejoice that an actual proletariat, exercising weight and influence throughout the society, and thoroughly inter-connected with it, enabled the Party to accomplish the social transformation which it had set itself, even if with some loss of style?
By the same token, is the “true proletarian revolutionary” a member of the lesser gentry who has “merged heart and soul” with the proletariat and directs it, or is he an actual worker motivated by material interest? Medvedev clearly feels that the former is the true proletarian, and establishes him as the ideal by comparison with which the actual proletarian appears petty-bourgeois. But it is only within certain narrow limits that declassed members of the minor gentry can act in the name of the proletariat. A political seizure of power and a war are relatively superficial things. When it comes to the transformation of a society the “true” must mingle most intimately with the actual, and must submit to “degeneration”, or it will decline into an impotent ideal. The ideal cannot simply set itself up in place of the actual. It cannot cast a reflection of itself which realises itself as the actual. The most it can do is direct the movement of the actual. And if it is to do even this much it must ensure that flesh-and-blood representatives of the actual are increasingly drawn into its own leading circle – which is, of course, thereby vulgarised.
The declassed intellectual may merge heart and soul with the proletariat, but he must not expect that by doing so he transforms the heart and soul of the proletariat. Trotsky was quite disgusted when he learned that his spiritual merger with the proletariat had not transformed the proletariat culturally. He had looked upon it as a marriage of equals – in the old sense in which the woman freely agreed to love, honour and obey. He did not, of course, imagine that the proletarian masses had all become capable of responding aesthetically to all the nuances of modern art and conducting civilised conversations in Viennese coffee-shops, but he imagined that they had become sufficiently appreciative of culture to feel the need to be governed by cultured people. How could they support Stalin, who was really no better than they were themselves? Well, let them wallow in their own vulgarity! He would remain true to the ideal.
“In 1922 Lenin could write that the Party was still not sufficiently proletarian, the state apparat still a bourgeois mishmash. Ten years later the picture had substantially changed. The apparat was working much better, coping with more complex problems.” (p.416)
So, the first decade of Stalinism involved the development of an increasingly efficient and an increasingly proletarian apparatus of state. Furthermore, Stalin’s schematic vulgarisations of Marxism were the means by which the new proletariat learned to think. They were the skeleton of the new world outlook. They were the map and compass by means of which the products of Tsarist backwardness orientated themselves in the modern world. They did not include everything, but they opened the door to everything. And yet, while conceding that this was the case, Medvedev strives for formulations which represent Stalin as an obstacle to the development which occurred under his rule:
“Stalin was for thirty years the helmsman of the ship of state, clutching its steering wheel in a grip of death. Dozens of times he steered it onto reefs and shoals far off course. Shall we be grateful to him because he did not manage to sink it altogether?” (p.564)
“The extremely complex social processes of the period after the death of Lenin are still waiting for genuine scientific analysis.” (p.416)
And it is all too obvious from Medvedev’s efforts that such analysis is incompatible with anti-Stalin passion. If Medvedev had done what his colleagues, official party historians, did, and had begun his Stalin-criticism in 1934 or thereabouts, he would have made much more sense. But he could not then have achieved the depth of feeling that he considers necessary.
In 1923 nothing much in the way of a political or social system existed. Capitalism had been partly restored – which is to say that civil society had been partially freed to do what came naturally to it. The immense peasantry remained there as an immense source of capitalist development. What existed on the other side was a tightly disciplined party which had defeated all comers in political and military conflict, and which had established a political monopoly for itself. But by 1934 it could be said that a new social system existed. One only creates mysteries by denying Stalin the responsibility for the establishment of this system. The official line is to credit Stalin with the establishment of the system, and to criticise him for arbitrary and capricious interference with it thereafter. But Medvedev’s passion requires more to satisfy it than the relatively superficial criticism that would be warranted if it was conceded that Stalin had done what was necessary until 1934.
Since Medvedev has made theoretical nonsense of the period up to 1934 we will not attempt to follow him in detail through the purges of the late thirties. The gist of what he says is that Stalin, having moulded the new proletariat into a somewhat cultured ruling class, and having established a more or less effective apparatus of state, set about wrecking all that he had built, and did it out of sheer evil mindedness. Though he encountered some opposition on the Central Committee in 1934,
“the mass repression of the thirties cannot be attributed to any significant resistance to Stalin’s arbitrary rule. The sad fact is that Stalin’s drive for unlimited personal dictatorship encountered no significant resistance … The only forces opposed to Stalin were those which had been enemies of the proletarian dictatorship all along – world imperialism and the White Russian emigres.” (p.361)
The “hundreds of thousands of officials destroyed in 1937-38″ were “the best promoters of industrialisation.” (p.361) Stalin destroyed them out of mere caprice and yet encountered no resistance from the system. And likewise with the officer corps of the army in 1937. No matter what he did, he was not opposed. People within the leadership who disagreed with what was being done opposed themselves rather than Stalin. He was not only the dictator who disposed of the body, he was the super-ego, the conscience, through which the mind passes judgement on itself.
“Why did Ordzonikidze shoot himself rather than Stalin? Why was there not one real attempt to remove Stalin during his fifteen years of bloody crimes?”
(It should be remarked that, as the period of British colonialism in Ireland varies continuously between three centuries and eight, the period of Stalin’s crimes varies between fifteen and thirty years.)
“Those who were capable of such an act were stopped not so much by fear for their lives as by fear of the social consequences, which could not be predicted in the conditions of the cult.” (p.363)
It is implied by Medvedev’s use of language that the social consequences of an assassination of Stalin would have been entirely progressive. There was a social need to dispose of Stalin. But this need found no expression within the (Stalinist) system which Stalin was perverting out of sheer whimsicality. The system established by Stalin in 1923-24 was enormously stable and harmonious. There was no significant opposition to it within the society. Stalin pretended that there were enemies as a pretext for killing off thousands of the best representatives of the system which he had established. He used force capriciously on a massive scale. But this use of force was not the basis of his power. It was rather the case that he could indulge in the irresponsible use of force because his power rested securely on other foundations.
“Stalin never relied on force alone. Throughout the period of his one-man rule he was popular. The longer the tyrant ruled … the greater seems to have been the dedication to him, even the love, of the majority of people.” (p.362)
His monstrous crimes were in the nature of a flourish with which he demonstrated his complete freedom of action. His freedom of action was so extensive that he could indulge his whimsies unlimitedly. And those who thought of opposing him killed themselves in preference to doing so. Why could not one of them see that it would be socially beneficial to kill him? Because “social consciousness took on the elements of religious psychology” (p.363) due to the personality cult.
Though Medvedev declares that the purges were directed at random against the best elements of the political apparatus (and that it was only by accident that “real counter-revolutionaries were occasionally caught up” in them: p.562), he does not conclude that the apparatus suffered greatly. It was not the case that the bad replaced the good. On the lower level of the apparatus there was little change. On the middle level
“many dedicated Leninists rose to take the places vacated by the repression, but too many replacements were unprincipled careerists … At the top levels there was a reverse process: Leninists were replaced by people whom we may call Stalinists. Even at the top, however, there was variety.” (p .417)
In this respect, therefore, the purges were much ado about nothing.
But how come that the Stalinist system was producing budding Leninists throughout the society and was promoting them upwards through the apparatus if it was not in some meaningful sense Leninist? Medvedev does not explain. In fact, he is now using “Leninist” to mean idealist and “Stalinist” to mean careerist. A Leninist is a Stalinist idealist. A Stalinist is a Leninist careerist. There continued to be a mix of idealists and careerists in the apparatus: that is what he is saying.
In Let History Judge Medvedev failed entirely to “abstract Stalin’s crimes and mistakes” from the “huge and complex flow of events” in which Stalin participated. If he were not so utterly lacking in analytical ability he would have known that he had failed to isolate the “Stalinism” which he believes in, that he had failed to isolate the “Leninism” which he believes in, and that he had failed to demonstrate that in “the huge and complex flow of events” the posited Leninist system was responsible for the progressive developments which he recognises as having taken place while the posited Stalinist perversion of Leninism was responsible for some horrible though relatively superficial happenings. And if he knew that he had failed to make that abstraction he might not have been so optimistic about “Leninist democracy” coming into its own under the impact of some deeply-felt Stalin-criticism. Marxism in its infancy sometimes called itself “critical realism”. That is the aspect of Marxism which is unknowable to “creative Marxism”. If Medvedev had been a critical realist his political evolution subsequent to the writing of Let History Judge would have taken a different course. He would have known that his book had failed to establish that his historical beliefs were soundly based, and that the political programme derived from them was therefore suspect. And he may not have developed, through the dashing of his hopes, into a critical Brezhnevite.
THE COMMUNIST : September 1978
Roy Medvedev wrote his history of the Stalin era, Let History Judge, in order to demonstrate that Stalinism was a perversion of the Leninist system of socialist democracy, which, however, left the substance of that system intact. He completed his book without realising that he had failed to establish that there was in the first place a Leninist system of socialist democracy, let alone that Stalinism was a perversion of it. Furthermore, he failed to demonstrate that there was any region of politics, or even any region of society, where Stalinism had not established itself comprehensively. Indeed, it would follow from his description of the comprehensive triumph of Stalinism that, even if there had been a Leninist system of socialist democracy in actual existence at one time, it had been entirely obliterated by Stalinism.
But Medvedev insisted that Stalinism, a “pseudo-socialist” antithesis of Leninism, triumphed comprehensively at all levels of society, and that Leninism nevertheless remained in being as a social force capable of sloughing off the Stalinist perversions once Stalinist repression eased off. The term “dogmatic” is used extensively by creative Marxists as a term of abuse. But it is difficult to imagine how creative Marxism can be other than dogmatic in the strict sense of the term. Only groundless ideas are created. Ideas for which there is sufficient reason do not need to be created. To create means to make something out of nothing, in the way that God made the world on the first day. In this context, it means to assert groundlessly. And a groundless assertion is certainly a dogma. There is a most intimate relationship between creation and dogmatism in their strict senses, though they have acquired somewhat dissonant overtones. In accordance with these overtones things are often said to be creative which are not in the least dogmatic, and which are quite adequately grounded in the natural order of things. Creative Marxism is not creative in this figurative sense. It is creative in the strict, dogmatic sense.
The historical scheme of Let History Judge is not only a dogma, a groundless idea, it is a bad dogma. It is a dogma that proved to be pathetically incapable of functioning in the society for which it was created. It is an ineffective dogma.
Medvedev’s second book, On Socialist Democracy, was written as a political programme for realising the possibilities of development which were inferred reasonably enough from the dogmatic scheme of the first book. It exuded confidence that Leninist democracy was about to become dominant in the Soviet Union once again – though the manner of its publication made this confidence absurd: it was, like its predecessor, fostered out to the bourgeoisie, being published by Macmillan in 1975, with a disillusioned address by Medvedev to his English readers.
It opens with an optimistic history (Oh, to be a creator, and to be able to write optimistic history!) of “The Soviet Union During the 1960s”. It dwells on the great significance of the 20th and 22nd Congresses of the CPSU. It recounts how well the business of scraping Stalinism off of the society has been launched:
“Various symbols of the Stalin cult, so alien to socialism, were eliminated: the sarcophagus containing the usurper’s body was removed from the Lenin Mausoleum, and many cities, streets, squares and institutions were renamed … Socialist principles and socialist relations, largely in abeyance during the Stalin cult, were given new impetus.” (p.23)
Though the “party-democrats” were not yet represented in the top leadership,
“One may dare to predict that in the course of the seventies they will gain very widespread support. It is not impossible that what today exists only as the sentiments of a minority will in the near future be transformed into a mass social movement.”(p.58)
He records that in the later sixties there was a slight regression in the democratising process:
“In the last years, violations of socialist legality have been increasing … starting in 1966 there were more than a score of political trials which were severely and rightly condemned by Soviet public opinion.” (sic!, p.24)
Furthermore, some attempts were being made to rehabilitate Stalin. But one is left with the impression that these are no more than spurts of resistance offered by a declining force which had no social basis.
“All groups in society would profit from rapid development of socialist democracy.” (p.37) Only a few bureaucrats would not benefit. In the conditions of the Stalin cult all social laws were suspended, and society as a whole acted against its own interests with great enthusiasm. But in the post-20th Congress conditions, one would expect developments which would benefit “all groups in society” to occur, and one would not expect the will of a few bureaucrats to prevail against the interest of all groups in society.
Detente and Socialist Democracy (a collection edited by Ken Coates, with an article by Medvedev on “Problems of Democratisation and Detente” as its centrepiece), which was published in English almost simultaneously with On Socialist Democracy – indeed, the Medvedev article had been published earlier, in New Left Review in 1973 – was entirely different in mood and expectation. The prediction that the “party-democrats” would be transformed in the seventies into a mass social movement was not exultantly referred to as an example of scientific anticipation. Medvedev addressed himself instead to explaining the failure of the scheme of development outlined in On Socialist Democracy to realise itself:
“How can these regressive tendencies in our internal politics be overcome? … It is clear that the forces of the progressive intelligentsia … are still too feeble to oppose the sharp swing to the right in our political and social life. It is also necessary to take into account the political passivity of the working class, of the employees, and even more so of the peasantry.” (p.17)
His explanation of this regressive development is as follows:
“The masses could move only as a result of serious political or economic crises. Yet the prospect of crises seems neither probable nor desirable. Soviet society can still develop even within its existing political structure and economic conditions. Although its development is too slow by the yardstick of the real possibilities of socialism, it is nevertheless sufficient to avert any uncontrollable growth of dissatisfaction among broad masses of the people. The economic resources and the natural wealth of the Soviet Union are so great, and the State monopoly of foreign trade requirements safeguards our domestic market so well from undesirable competition, that even under a weak and incompetent leadership, growth in all branches of national economy will continue. In such conditions a reorganisation of social and economic management and enlargement of political and civil liberties, and expansion of socialist democracy, can come … not as a result of open pressure by the popular masses and the intelligentsia, but as a consequence of initiatives ‘from above’. In effect, the exposure of the ‘cult of personality’ … was in no sense the result of simple pressure of the masses or the lower ranks of the party. That event, so important for the fate of the whole world communist movement, was the result of certain struggles ‘at the top’ which reflected a growing dissatisfaction in the country only very obliquely.” (p.18-19)
Is not this saying in effect that the political and economic system established in the Stalin period, slightly modified to take account of Stalin’s absence from it, is proving, more than twenty years after the 20th Congress, to be an adequate framework for the evolution of Soviet society? If there is no immediate possibility of a conflict between the society and the system, despite the fact that during the past decade the system has consolidated itself instead of being sloughed off as an excrescence by the society, what can that mean except that Medvedev’s earlier view has proved to be utterly illusory? But in the very same paragraph in which he says this, Medvedev makes the profoundly incongruous statement that
“The need for a thorough-going democratisation of Soviet society has long since arrived in the USSR. It is, in fact, the most important precondition for acceleration of the economic, political, social and cultural development of our country. Only a genuine socialist democracy can give birth to the new motor forces that are necessary to restore life and health to the whole system of Soviet institutions and organisation. The political passivity of our population ‘below’ is, however, equally obvious …” (p.18)
Here we have a pressing social need which has no social expression. There is a need for “democratisation”, but no social demand for it. Since there is no popular demand for “genuine socialist democracy”, it is up to the oligarchy to introduce it gradually. But what kind of democracy is it that can be introduced by an oligarchy for a populace which is not demanding it? Answer: liberal totalitarianism that calls itself democracy.
There is a curious expression in the sentences that have just been quoted. One hesitates to call it a thought, since it is Medvedev who utters it, but it is a most apt expression. He says that “only a genuine socialist democracy can give birth to the new motor forces that are necessary”. This reverses what has generally been thought to be the relationship between new motor forces in society and democracy. It has been thought that new motor forces produce democracy in the course of their development, but Medvedev says that democracy is necessary in the Soviet Union in order to produce new motor forces. The social forces that exist are satisfied with the political structure that exists, therefore a new political form is necessary to produce new social forces. That is a profoundly totalitarian idea.
Medvedev is in some sense a liberal. He is not in any substantial sense a democrat, even though democracy is his favourite word.
In the chapter on “The Conditions Facilitating Stalin’s Usurpation of Power” in Let History Judge, Medvedev seems to be groping his way towards the conclusion that there was one general condition governing that usurpation – the one-party political system. The various conditions which he lists are only particular features of that general condition. He might have excused Lenin with a characteristically superficial argument that the one-party system had been forced on him in the circumstances of civil war, and that he was just about to change it when he was struck down (which he does actually say, or hint at), that the consolidation of the one-party system after Lenin’s death despite Lenin’s intentions was the prime cause of all the later unpleasantness, and that the restoration of Leninism involved the ending of the Communist Party monopoly of political organisation.
If he had said that he would have become a democrat in some meaningful sense, while remaining a bad historian. But at the point at which the natural momentum of his argument would have led him to say that, he turned aside from it and said something else:
“Although the Bolsheviks’ treatment of the other democratic parties was not beyond reproach, it should be pointed out that the CP’s monopoly of political activity was a product of history.” (What isn’t?!) “In a certain period it was an important condition for the realisation of the dictatorship of the proletariat. But while a one-party system has some positive aspects, negative tendencies result from its prolonged existence. Serious mistakes of leadership are not discussed in the open, the leaders’ responsibility for their actions is reduced, bureaucratic degeneration and even transition to a despotic system are facilitated. That was the evolutionary pattern of the Stalinist regime. It is not surprising that today almost all the CPs of Western Europe have declared their opposition to a one-party system.
“Of course in the Soviet Union today a change to any sort of multiparty system is not possible or feasible. But this very greatly reinforces the need to create specific safeguards against arbitrary rule … safeguards built into the structure and working methods of the ruling party itself.” (Let History Judge, p.384)
We can only infer from this that when Medvedev says “genuine socialist democracy” what he has in mind is a certain style of totalitarian government.
He reflects on this question in greater detail in On Socialist Democracy:
“No amount of persecution or prohibition can entirely account for the disappearance of a party. For if it has firm roots in society it will continue to exist in some form or other despite the cruellest efforts to suppress it … It would hence be wrong to explain the total disappearance of all former political parties in the USSR today only as a consequence of Stalinist terror. It was of course the major immediate cause, but it was also true that they had lost their social base because the effect of the terror was so thorough, the transformation of the social structure had been so violent, that there were no longer social groups and political trends to sustain and support the former parties.” (On Socialist Democracy, p.100)
But, while in the period of social transformation there was no social base for the existence of various parties, this is no longer the case. Soviet society is not completely uniform. Various groupings can be discerned, and
“These distinctions provide the basis for the various political moods among the masses … giving rise to diverse political trends … But any serious trend or movement contains within itself the potential of becoming a political party.” (p.99)
“I believe that political ’pluralism’ is something that springs inevitably from our present situation … Is this to be welcomed or not? There is no simple straightforward answer.” (p.101)
On the one hand the emergence of other parties would have a stimulating effect on the leadership of the CP. “Within the top ranks of the party there are practically no politicians worthy of the name, no ideologists or theoreticians” (p.101), so the threat of competition would be beneficial.
“But if the party brings itself to permit an organised dissent with access to the press or even the legal functioning of opposition groups, would this not mean that it had ceased to be communist, having to all intents and purposes adopted the ideology and politics of social democrats?” (p. 103)
Furthermore, the party might respond to the prospect of competition by administratively suppressing dissent rather than by improving its own manner of functioning, which would make a movement towards pluralism result in greater illiberalism. And, further still, Medvedev fears that the successful development of pluralist politics would bring about the disintegration of the USSR.
Reflecting in this cramped manner, Medvedev took up a carefully thought out position of liberal totalitarianism (or “real socialist democracy”) before the state moved to crush the dissenting movement. He differed from the party leadership mainly in wishing to preserve the substance of the totalitarian system by subtler means, even if this involved the formal emergence of other parties.
“The only way to prevent the emergence of an extremely dangerous and uncontrollable crisis is a gradual and systematic development of socialist and party democracy. This would not mean the end of diverse social and political movements outside the party and possibly would not prevent the formation of political parties and organisations alongside the CPSU … However, in conditions of real socialist democracy all these non-Marxist movements will be deprived of a mass base … Allowed into the open, their activity can be kept within reasonable bounds by democratic methods.” (p.106)
And, on the intimately related question of press freedom, he declares that
“A transition from almost total censorship to relative freedom of the press cannot, in our conditions, take place in a rapid or revolutionary manner. It must be a gradual and controlled process. Otherwise our whole society and the machinery of party and state would be subjected to severe strains.” (p.184)
And, indeed, “relatively” is the operative word. While protesting that “censorship intrudes more and more crudely into literature, science and art” (p.165), it is obvious that he is against the crudeness rather than the censorship:
“Freedom of the press can never be absolute. And it is natural that in a socialist society too, there must be certain reasonable restrictions on freedom of expression. Indeed, some of those that presently exist in Soviet society may be put down to its credit. No doubt we will never quite achieve that ‘freedom’ of the press that exists today in capitalist countries, and this is no cause for regret.” (p.168)
The press in bourgeois democratic societies
“violate elementary standards of decency and morality. Catering to the most primitive taste, they even allow undisguised pornography to appear on their pages … Obviously this trash cannot be tolerated in socialist society – on this we are all agreed.” (p.168)
When one has grasped what Medvedev means by “real socialist democracy”, one is not at all surprised to find him tagging along behind Brezhnev after Brezhnev moved administratively against the dissident movement. Their difference of opinion was tactical. If Medvedev’s incoherent history is disregarded, and if his phrasemongering is discounted, is there any good reason not to consider his political position to be that of a superficially reformist but fundamentally conservative Stalinist?
Of course it depends on what you mean by “Stalinist”. It is a word which tends to be used nowadays with even less meaning than “fascist” – and that is something! Medvedev says at one point that “the basic feature of Stalinism was the politically irrational use of terror” (On Socialist Democracy, p.52) and since he advocates minimal use of terror and highly skilful and rational use of the totalitarian apparatus, he is not a Stalinist in that sense. But that definition of Stalinism is utterly capricious and subjectivist.
The existing social system in the Soviet Union was established in 1928-34, under Stalin’s leadership, by rational use of the apparatus of state developed under Lenin – that is implicit in much of what Medvedev says. After 1934 Stalin made use of the unique position he achieved for himself in that period in order to indulge in wildly capricious behaviour at the expense of all and sundry, though never to the extent that the system rebelled against him – that is the gist of Medvedev’s view. His attempt to define Stalinism according to the post-1934 caprice is itself capricious. Assuming for the sake of argument that Stalin indulged in monstrous caprices after 1934, it must also be conceded that he continued to govern so effectively until his death that despite his monstrous caprices he never ceased to be universally admired within the system. After his death the “collective leadership” set about governing the system systematically according to the rationality inherent in it, and eradicating caprice from government. That is the best sense that can be made of Medvedev’s views, and his programme or perspective is gradual, piecemeal, and controlled reform, carried out from the centre, in the interest of maintaining the system. (For example, he refers most disapprovingly to “certain extreme groups that believe in the use of illegal methods including, for example, the organisation of underground printing presses.” – On Socialist Democracy, p.315) He then defines Stalinism in an absurdly superficial manner in order to be able to continue to indulge in anti-Stalinist phrasemongering.
(This review of Medvedev’s political evolution will, with a bit of luck, be concluded in one further article)
THE COMMUNIST: October 1978
“The fact that the social sciences play an extremely insignificant role in the formation of policy and the methods of governing is a denial of the principles and ideals of scientific communism.” (On Socialist Democracy, p.37)
“Within the top ranks of the party there are practically no politicians worthy of the name.” (ibid., p.101)
What a delightfully naive intellectual Medvedev is. His social scientific counterparts in Western universities and polytechnics and suchlike are much more cautious and prudent. Most of them act as if they knew that the sphere of effectiveness of their social science was the classroom, and the world of academic publishing which lives off the classroom. They do not overreach themselves. They find happiness in cultivating their gardens. They grub away happily in their little academic plots. But Medvedev actually thought that social scientists were fit to govern the state. How could one fail to be charmed by his preposterous earnestness?
In 1975 something completely unprecedented happened in British politics. A political party, in a critical phase of its existence, appointed a social scientist as its political adviser. Up until that moment the SDLP seemed to be a party with a future. But the moment it appointed Professor Bernard Crick to lead its campaign against the Unionist Convention Report one knew that it was only a party with a past. There is every reason to suppose that, if the CPSU had appointed what Medvedev conceived to be social scientists to govern the USSR, the Soviet Union would now be in fragments. And it seems that Medvedev himself finally came to realise this, since he has reconciled himself in the seventies to a state of affairs which is much more closed and restrictive than that which he protested against in the sixties.
The “Notes” at the end of the English edition of On Socialist Democracy show Medvedev preoccupied with the revival of Stalinism, both in the form of a “neo-Stalinist” grouping in the Central Committee and of a popular sentiment. He quotes approvingly from a privately circulated anonymous document: its monstrous character
“does not mean … that Stalinism is completely alien to the popular mind. A part of the workers are still retrograde in their thinking, nostalgic for the absolute, indisputable, deified master whom they saw as an all- powerful protector against oppressors at the local level, as one who visited justice on all their enemies … To a certain extent Stalinism embodies the underdog’s dream of retribution with the aid of a higher justice, however cruel, against all those who humiliate him in daily life. Impotence seeks the protection of a supreme avenging power. But this kind of ‘Stalinism’ is an implicit criticism of bureaucracy … There have been many cases in history of progressive social moods originating in the guise of reactionary Utopias. Like a filthy animal devouring its own excrement, Stalinism is now feeding on its own excretion, on its own waste products.” (p.346)
Stalinism survives as a protest against the bureaucracy which it produced!
But did not Leninism also derive much of its power from “the underdog’s dream of retribution”? Does not every substantial revolutionary movement tap that source of power? Kautsky held in the early twenties that Leninism split the German working class movement by generating Utopian visions in its backward and impotent section and thereby setting it against the powerful vanguard of the class, which was reformist because it knew from experience that it had the power to bring about realistic reforms. And even if there was a substantial amount of truth in that explanation, it was still beside the point, because it was very much the business of the social-democratic movement to be able to harness the Utopian energy of the backward mass of the workers which had been precipitated into activity by the collapse of the old regime.
“The economic and political difficulties of the last decade [i.e. the decade after the restoration of “Leninism” by the 20th Congress, B&ICO] have led a large number of rank-and-file party members as well as various categories of workers to idealise the past. People see that prices are continually rising and talk about the way that ‘Stalin lowered them’. Seeing the split in the socialist camp and disagreement in the communist movement, they recall the time when such things were inconceivable … A considerable part of our industrial and office workers, never having received an adequate education, find it difficult to adjust to the conditions of contemporary scientific and technological progress. Their lives have been difficult, their hopes disappointed, and it is hardly surprising that ignorance leads them to seek refuge in the past.” (p.49)
“was a religious phenomenon as much as a political one, a peculiar Soviet form of worship. The eradication of this religion among the masses will need a prolonged campaign of education. But for six years now almost nothing has been done to expose the Stalin cult …” (p.346)
Medvedev’s Leninism comes to resemble Kautsky’s Marxism, in that it comes to find itself alienated from the uneducated masses. Sociological Marxism has recently discovered the question, “who educates the educators”, and is trying to say something suitably abstruse on the subject, but the question where the power lies still remains “who educates the uneducated”. And there is no doubt whatsoever that what might be called Leninism-Stalinism remains, in that sphere of activity, the greatest educational power in the world.
Since it proved to be the case that there was not a “Leninist” system of “real socialist democracy”, which had survived beneath the Stalinist excrescence for thirty years, and which had been responsible for the positive achievements of that period; since a sort of Leninist civil society did not exist under the Stalinist state; and since it was discovered that there was a popular Stalinist sentiment which could only be eradicated through a system of totalitarian indoctrination (i.e. “a prolonged campaign of education”), then it is easy to understand why “for six years now almost nothing has been done to expose the Stalin cult.” (p.346) The assumptions made by Medvedev and many others in 1956 proved to be without substance, therefore those responsible for government ceased to act on the basis of them.
[When the Soviet Union declined and well, the Russian people were free to either denounce Stalin or to defend him: under Brezhnev the whole topic had been forbidden. The pro-Stalin side won decisively, helped by the failure of efforts to reshape Russia on the basis of Western advice. By the sharp drop in living standards, the growth of crime and the rise of oligarchs who accumulated former state property without doing anything useful.
[“A total of 46 percent of Russians expressed some kind of positive view of Stalin in Levada’s poll, the highest percentage of positive answers since Levada began asking the question in 2001. Thirty-two percent said they had ‘respect’ for Stalin, while an additional 10 percent said they had ‘sympathy,’ and 4 percent said they had ‘admiration.’
[“On the negative end of the scale, 12 percent said they viewed Stalin with ‘distaste,’ while 7 percent said they feared him, and 2 percent said they hated him. A further 22 percent said they viewed the former Soviet leader with indifference, while 10 percent gave no answer to the question.” https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2017/02/15/positive-views-of-stalin-among-russians-reach-16-year-high-poll-shows/
[This vindicates Brendan Clifford’s 1980 judgement that Stalin was indeed the true expression of what Lenin started. And that it matched the general Russian view of the world. Gwydion M. Williams.]
That the “prolonged education” in anti-Stalinism envisaged by Medvedev was to be rigorously dogmatic is demonstrated by his protests against the revision of Khrushchev’s pronouncements on Stalin’s conduct of the war. Khrushchev laid it down in his Secret Speech that Stalin went to pieces for a few weeks on the outbreak of war, and only pulled himself together “when some members of the Politburo visited him in order to improve the situation at the front“. And even then, “the nervousness and hysteria which Stalin demonstrated … caused our army serious damage“. And he repeated the same story many years after in his memoirs:
“Stalin was for all practical purposes prostrated during the first weeks of the war”. He “was paralysed by fear of Hitler, like a rabbit in front of a boa constrictor.” (Khrushchev Remembers, Vol, I, p.168-9)
And of course,
“Stalin tried to plan his battle movements by tracing troop lines on the Front with his finger on the globe of the world.” (p.185)
And Edward Crankshaw comments expertly in his introduction:
“Stalin was reduced to a state of breakdown while the Germans were wiping out whole armies in vast encirclements.” (p.165)
Medvedev creates his history out of material like this:
“In an unofficial conversation Khrushchev once said that Stalin simply drank, and that sounds like the truth. And when the Politburo members came to see him, he was frightened, thinking they had come to arrest him.” (Let History Judge, p.458)
Since nothing could be done without Stalin’s authority, his state of funk had very damaging military consequences. And things improved little when he returned to the command post:
“Most of Stalin’s decisions were … extravagantly senseless and costly.” (p.455)
His decisive presence was as disastrous as his dithering absence:
“The case against Statin’s military record has become so overwhelming that prevarication and sophistry are the only recourse of his apologists.” (p.455)
And yet the war was won under his command! Medvedev explains:
“The patriotism of the Soviet people and the increasing experience of its army were chief factors that ensured a Soviet victory, despite Stalin’s poor leadership … He had much more to do with the reverses at the beginning of the war than with the victories at the end. With other leadership, the army might have defeated the Nazi aggressor … much farther west and much sooner.” (p.465)
So the army won the war despite the bungling of the high command – there is no doubt whatsoever that Stalin was in command. But how could such a thing have happened? The notion itself is a Tolstoyan one, expounded in War and Peace. Tolstoy gave a frankly mystical explanation of how armies win wars despite the military command. Medvedev gives no explanation at all – no explanation is possible since such a thing is in the nature of a mystery.
The Khrushchevite story was at its most vulnerable on this point, but the Khrushchevites did not have the wit to see it. War is a most public business, and the study of war is the most objective branch of social study. Western military writing about the Soviet Union is less affected by political bias than any other branch of Sovietology. Khrushchevite military notions are strictly inconceivable and they were the one branch of Khrushchev’s ideology that was never taken seriously by the appropriate Western specialists. A recent military biographer of Stalin, Col. A. Seaton, sums up as follows in his book, Stalin as Warlord (1976):
“Stalin’s failure in the opening of the war was political rather than military.” (p. 267)
“Stalin alone was responsible for the heavy losses of 1941 and 1942. But if he is to bear the blame for the defeats of the first two years … he must be allowed the credit for the amazing successes of 1944, the annus mirabilis, when whole German army groups were virtually obliterated with lightning blows in Belorussia, Galicia, Rumania and the Baltic, in battles fought not on the wintry steppes, but in midsummer in central Europe. Some of these victories must be reckoned as among the most outstanding in the world’s military history.”(p.271)
As for Stalin’s prolonged bout of funk in response to the invasion, Col. Seaton finds that the evidence is all against it, but he accepts it as a possibility that Stalin might have been inactive for one day (June 27th), a week after the outbreak of war, due to despondency over the encirclement at Minsk.
Khrushchevite military history was quickly refuted at home as well as abroad. It is often assumed that historical fact is a matter of no consequence in a totalitarian state, since what passes for truth is concocted by what we now call the Ideological State Apparatuses, but the fate of Khrushchev’s military criticism ought to raise some doubts on that score. Marshal Chuikov (amongst others) was brought forward to prove how Stalin’s military bungling messed things up in the later stages of the war, and prevented it from being won by February 1944. It was as if one of Wellington’s regimental commanders had been commissioned to prove that Wellington’s bungling prevented the war in Spain from being won in 1812. It was one of those ideas that just would not take root no matter how much it was publicised by state apparatuses.
Col. Seaton remarks that “Chuikov is a retrospective ’if only’ man”. (p.239) If the war had been lost the “if only” approach would have been in order, but as a device for criticising the leadership of a war that had been won in a quite conclusive manner it was out of place. It was a frivolous provocation that elicited a crushing response from Marshal Zhukov, who exercised general military command under Stalin from the early weeks of the war until its conclusion. Zhukov knew that he had won some remarkable battles, and he knew that it was an exceptional feat of military organisation to manage the long and rapid advance from Moscow and Stalingrad to Berlin without presenting the German armies with a single opportunity for a successful counteroffensive of major proportions, and he said so.
Zhukov defended his military reputation in by far the most interesting book written by a Soviet leader since the death of Stalin (Memoirs, Moscow 1969, London 1971), and by the same token he re-established Stalin’s military reputation in the Soviet Union – but not only his military reputation.
In denouncing Stalin, Khrushchev also represented himself as a man without any semblance of personal integrity. A survivor in the court of a capricious despot must be devoid of personal integrity. But Zhukov represents himself as acting in a quite different sort of context. He does not degrade himself by the picture that he paints of Stalin, nor does he try on any notions about how he won the war despite Stalin. He represents his wartime relationship with Stalin as an association of two competent and reasonable men, of which he has every reason to be proud. And he dissociates himself sharply from the degrading Khrushchev view:
“I know from my war experience that one could safely bring up matters unlikely to please Stalin, argue them out and firmly carry the point.” (p.281)
Medvedev cites Zhukov in support of his notions:
“Zhukov testifies that Stalin had little understanding of tactical problems; the action of military units smaller than armies was obscure to him.” (p.46, Let History Judge)
But of what significance is it that Stalin was not equipped to order the deployment of divisions and regiments? Since he was not a general it was not his business to do such things. Units smaller than armies were comparatively small units on the Russian front. Napoleon was unable to give coherent orders to the component parts of his army in the Waterloo campaign when his old chief of staff failed to join him for the hundred days, so it is not much of a criticism of Stalin to say that the actions of divisions and regiments and companies was obscure to him. The action of fronts and armies was what he was concerned with, and the appointment of competent commanders for them. And he never caused fronts and armies to wander aimlessly to and fro at critical moments in battles in the way that Napoleon caused their equivalents to do at Waterloo.
What Zhukov says in his memoirs is:
“Of course, Stalin had no knowledge of all the details with which the troops and all command echelons had to deal meticulously in order to prepare an operation by a front or a group of fronts. For that matter, this was something he didn’t really need to know.”(p.285) Of course!
Zhukov’s general assessment of Stalin’s military qualities is as follows:
“From the military standpoint I have studied Stalin most thoroughly, for I entered the war with him and together with him I ended it. Stalin mastered the technique of organisation of front operation and operations by groups of fronts and guided them with skill, thoroughly understanding complicated strategic questions … In guiding the armed struggle as a whole, Stalin was assisted by his natural intelligence and profound intuition. He had a knack of grasping the main link in the strategic situation … He was certainly a worthy Supreme Commander.”
In the sphere of tactical innovation:
“Stalin’s merit lies in the fact that he correctly appraised the advice offered by the military experts and then in summarised form … immediately circulated them among the troops for practical guidance. As regards the material and technical organisation of operations, the build-up of strategic reserves, the organisation of production of materiel, Stalin did prove himself to be an outstanding organiser.”(p.284-5)
And Zhukov considers the most impressive event of the war to be the Battle of Moscow, over which Stalin exercised very direct control (p.361).
The Khrushchevites would have been well advised to let sleeping dogs lie with regard to the war. Or they could have restricted themselves to the point that “Stalin’s calculation that war could be postponed until 1942 or later was obviously unreal”. (Medvedev, p.447) That was undoubtedly a mistake, and it should have been exhibited in grand isolation as a monstrous mistake. But because they extended their military criticism recklessly, they caused even that mistake to be seen in a reasonable light. Zhukov makes very little of it indeed, and tries to explain the difficulty in assessing information in 1941.
“To this day many of the soldiers and officers who went into battle with Stalin’s name of their lips find it hard to reconsider their attitude towards him and the wartime events connected with his image. The historian may sympathise with this primitive psychology, but inexorable facts oblige him to oppose it.” (Medvedev, p.455)
But the pompous language is only camouflage for an empty mind.
Medvedev makes reference to “Soviet public opinion” which condemned the political trials of the late sixties (On Socialist Democracy, p.24). One can only raise one’s eyebrows at that remark. Insofar as “Soviet public opinion” exists, it expresses the views of the middle regions of the Party hierarchy. And it was the absurd features of the anti-Stalin enthusiasm that came into disfavour with this public opinion. The reason why “for six years almost nothing has been done to expose the Stalin cult” was that the exposure was not uncovering a viable system of a different kind underneath and that it was beginning to fly in the face of common sense.
“One of the reasons for the revival of Stalinism is that after the 20th Congress there was no attempt to make a fundamental analysis of the system created by Stalin. All emphasis was on the mass persecutions carried out by him, although this was perhaps not the primary feature of his rule. That is why many members of the party and government apparatus who appeared on the political scene only after the war and who were not affected by the mass purges of the 1930s easily came to think the Stalin system was not all bad and that a return to it would be a good way of overcoming present difficulties.” (On Socialist Democracy, p.347)
And the obviously delusory character of Stalin criticism in military matters must have helped them towards that conclusion.
The most coherent of Medvedev’s books is Khrushchev: The Years in Power (Oxford University Press, 1977), which is an effort to explain why the great hero failed. It is coherently disillusioned. It says about the historic 22nd Congress:
“Sensitive to the cold winds of changing public opinion Khrushchev again used the ploy of denouncing Stalin.”
The great anti-Stalinist had made a mess of things in practical politics so he launched a new anti-Stalin campaign. The anti-Stalinism of the 22nd Congress registered the bankruptcy of the anti-Stalinism of the 20th Congress.
When Lenin died only a political revolution had been accomplished. The new socialist state existed in a massively petty bourgeois social environment, in which there had been a considerable amount of capitalist economic development since 1921. A revolution therefore remained to be made. The state could not settle down into a routine mode of existence If it ceased to be capable of purposeful revolutionary activity – which is to say, arbitrary activity – it would not have survived: or it would have survived only as a sort of bourgeois state. A state which evolved as a reflection of the NEP economy would have become a bourgeois state with socialist overtones, The Stalin dictatorship established itself in the social revolution of the late twenties and early thirties.
When Stalin died the state had no longer any revolutionary objective within Soviet society. It would therefore have been a symptom of political decadence if Stalin had been succeeded by a new dictator who simply took over the old revolutionary (or arbitrary) apparatus of state. The logic of the system required a modification of the state structure
The opening chapters of Medvedev’s book describe how the state structure was modified to take account of Stalin’s removal from it. For example, the security apparatus
“was no longer independent, subordinate only to a Stalin-like godhead. An oblast security chief now reported to the secretary of the oblast Party Committee. In some raions, instead of separate sections for state security, small sectors were formed directly within the raion committee, and if it was necessary to have informers, they were recruited from among party members directly by the raion committee. Along with its autonomy, the security apparatus lost the combined power to arrest, try and sentence, and execute. The KGB could now only investigate and arrest, trial and sentencing became the province of the courts; the system of camps and prisons was supervised by the Ministry of Internal Affairs. The division of functions gave the Party a much more influential role as final arbiter.” (p.40)
“Political terror as an everyday method of government was replaced under Khrushchev by administrative methods of repression.”(p.42)
What the reforms of 1953-6 amount to is a dismantling of the revolutionary apparatus of state, and the modification of the governing apparatus so as to take account of Stalin’s removal from it, and to make provision for the routine administration of the system.
But before the post-Stalin collective leadership could settle down into an evolutionary routine it had to discover what was possible through a process of trial and error.
During the decade following the 20th Congress Marxist political economy was systematically misrepresented by the agents of the new and spurious “Leninism”. Marx’s political economy was called Stalinist dogma and was rejected. The commodity with the socialist nature was invented by “creative Marxism”. It was implicit in the new, creative ideas about the commodity that Marx’s extensive writings on the subject were essentially mistaken. But the creators were not prepared to be honest about that implication. They set about obscuring Marx’s ideas, and they put forward their own ideas as a return to true Marxism after a long period of Stalinist perversion. The climax of this form of fantasy creativity in Britain occurred at an international symposium held in London in 1966 to mark the hundredth anniversary of the publication of Marx’s Capital, which was attended by the intellectual cream of the creative left in Britain and by many distinguished academicians from Eastern Europe. It was also attended by the B&ICO, which quite spoilt the atmosphere, and provoked some of the more naive enthusiasts of the new revelation to concede that the advent of the socialist commodity implied a rejection, of the labour theory of value. They had come to praise Marx in such a way as to bury him.
That Medvedev was fully in harmony with the creative spirit of those times is shown by the economic chapters of On Socialist Democracy. But the second decade after the 20th Congress saw a considerable evaporation of that spirit. There has been a movement back in favour of Marxist political economy, and so it is no longer called Stalinist. It would seem that the “Prague Spring” was the watershed, but the response to it had been prepared for by the earlier experience of Khrushchev’s economic policy. There was of course no necessary theoretical connection between the fiasco of Khrushchev’s economic policy and the retreat from market socialism, but there was a practical political connection between them. If the actual anti-Stalinist economic policy that was put into practice had proved effective, it would have opened up a great new perspective for radical anti-Stalinism in every sphere.
Medvedev gives over a number of chapters of his biography to describing the comprehensive failure of anti-Stalinist economic policy under Khrushchev. There was for example the regional decentralisation of a number of industries for the purpose of diminishing the bureaucracy associated with the centralised industrial Ministries:
“Among the small oblast councils there arose not so much competition among themselves as an exceedingly intricate network of bureaucratic relationships, for the sub-units of the large industrial complexes were scattered over different oblasts and raions and were subordinated to various different departments … Previously the director of a factory could co-ordinate his operation through the proper ministry, but now he had to deal with enterprises subordinate to dozens of different economic councils.” (Khrushchev, p.106)
In this situation many factories tried to set up the production of their own components, which was immensely wasteful. New state committees began to be erected on top of the decentralised structure in order to co-ordinate the industries.
“As a result by 1963 the bureaucratic apparatus for ‘managing’ industry not only had not been reduced … but had almost tripled.” (p.107)
Agriculture was supposed to have been grossly mismanaged under Stalin, and it was in this sphere that anti-Stalinism expected the most spectacular results. But “Fiasco in Riazan Oblast” is the title of one of Medvedev’s central chapters. The Secretary of the Riazan region undertook, in bold Khrushchevite spirit, to double meat production in 1959. He did so and was awarded the Order of Lenin. He undertook to organise a further massive increase in 1960, but shot himself instead when he ran up against some very elementary economic facts. The 1959 increase in meat production in Riazan had been achieved by slaughtering milch cows and breeding stock, and by purchasing cattle in neighbouring regions, not to mention purchasing meat from stocks held by the state in order to sell it back to it. As a direct result of this creative economic activity (which increased output out of nothing) the only way of preventing a drastic fall in production in 1960 seemed to be large-scale cattle rustling in other regions. When this failed the Party Secretary solved the problem by shooting himself.
In the sphere of grain production, the “Virgin Lands” policy produced a bumper crop in 1956, but thereafter the corn campaign wreaked havoc in many regions by creating immense dustbowls, which according to Medvedev it will take centuries to restore to arable land (p.121).
Khrushchev’s fall was precipitated, according to Medvedev, by proposals which would have established him in a position of personal dictatorship. He proposed that the Central Committee, with the exception of the General Secretary, should be replaced regularly, and that the Party should be split into two separate structures, industrial and agricultural. There would perhaps have been a basis for this if the Stalinist system were being abolished and a fundamental social and political change was in process. But “Soviet public opinion” came to the conclusion that fundamental changes in the system were not practical politics, that Khrushchev did not know what he was doing, and that the assumptions of anti-Stalinism were groundless. So Khrushchev was ousted, and as Medvedev puts it. “a truly collective leadership emerged, which was also more conservative in character.”(p.180)
Medvedev has reconciled himself to this political state of affairs. Indeed, he has become a positive upholder of it. And he only demonstrates political incompetence (the characteristic incompetence of an academic “social scientist”) when he wishes that this political conservatism could be combined with extensive anti-Stalinist phrasemongering. If the system established in the Stalin period is to be regarded as a framework for long-term social evolution, if no “Leninist” system of an essentially different kind asserted itself under the impact of the 20th Congress, anti-Stalinist phrasemongering makes no kind of political sense. It is both bad history and bad politics.
Medvedev concludes On Socialist Democracy with a complicated political metaphor:
“I would like to compare our society and ideology with a building that continues to grow taller despite its antiquated, decayed, even rotten foundation. There are still firm supports, but they are becoming less reliable. One hardly needs to stress the dangers of such basic social and ideological weakness. There are, however, a number of people in the leadership who prefer to ignore all the cracks in the foundation … Others in the leadership try to salvage and restore to their previous position in the structure totally rotted supports … And there are some who only see minor defects. There are, however, some bold spirits … who demand the immediate removal of all the flawed and weakened props that shore up our social system, even though they still have nothing with which to replace those dilapidated parts of the foundation that continue after a fashion, however badly, to support the enormous and still growing structure above. They can propose nothing better than to prop it up by makeshift, untried means, apparently untroubled by the possibility that the whole building might come tumbling down. Finally, there are people who have no desire whatsoever to live in this particular building and would prefer to move to another one. They therefore are not interested in strengthening the foundation of our society or reconstructing it at any level. Such people should be allowed to change their place of residence. But I cannot myself share any of these attitudes. Without being blind to the shortcomings and flaws in the very foundations of our social structure and ideology, we should fairly quickly, but also with the utmost caution, remove all the decayed elements at the base of the structure, replacing them with something much more durable … ” (p.331)
So: the building that Stalin built is fine except that its foundations are weak. The problem is only one of reinforcing the foundations so that the building may be preserved and enlarged. In this metaphor Medvedev anticipated his subsequent development into conservative Stalinism, And his concern about the weak foundations naturally diminished as the building continued to be enlarged without collapsing.
Medvedev’s positive criticism turned out in the end to be much ado about nothing. It remains only to be shown why it does not bear comparison with Solzhenitsyn’s powerful negative criticism as a progressive influence.
THE COMMUNIST: November 1978