Looking Back at the Europe Stalin Made


The recent developments in Eastern Europe and the USSR suggest that Europe may now be going into flux again/or the first time since the Second World War. In this critical review of a new study of the Nazi-Soviet Pact, Brendan Clifford explains what was at issue in the realpolitik which was made necessary the last time Europe went into flux fifty years ago.

Eurocommunism has been grappling for a general sense of history for about twenty years. But such a thing is not easily come by from a starting point of systematic ideology. Scientific socialism is essentially unhistorical because history is characteristically unsystematic. Scientific socialism is a system of certainty, but history is a unique series of unrepeatable adventures. The scheme of scientific socialism could only correspond with reality by making reality correspond with itself and policing it so that it might become habitually systematic.

Marx made a few notional gestures towards reducing humanity theoretically to a system, but his human impulses got in the way. Engels, more human personally but less so philosophically, elaborated the system. And Lenin, the apostle of Chernyshevsky’s icy vision of mankind as an orderly community of happy and industrious robots living in a Crystal Palace, made a valiant effort to realise the scientific system in a routine of actual human activity.

It would seem that the Leninist scheme for mankind is now crumbling from within, in the minds of its hierarchy. If Gorbachev is in earnest, and if the Central Committee is in earnest in support of him, that is what is happening. The human material which was systematically restructured by Lenin is being restructured back into subjective chaos.

If that proves to be the case then there must be an old-fashioned power of thought lurking within the Soviet intelligentsia. It must have become infected by the material which it attempted to control and homogenise: the liberal-humanitarian culture of Europe. And if that is so, a rich development out of Dostoevskian soil is possible – a development of which Solzhenitsyn will be the pioneer.

But the Western intellectual who grew up amidst the liberal heritage of Europe and rejected it in favour of the Leninist vision will have considerable difficulty in getting back on terms with the European heritage. There can be no exciting sense of discovery for him as there might be for the Soviet intellectual, only a retreat to the world-outlook of his father – or, in many instances, of his grandfather.


One feels that Geoff Roberts lives amongst fragments or echoes of Leninism. He gropes for the rich tapestry of life beyond Leninism and fishes the odd detail from it, but dogmatic echoes prevent him from flourishing in a medium of uncertainty. And his book has to do with the most uncertain of all mediums – the medium of states at war.[1]

(The title of the book echoes very strangely. Given that the Holy Alliance is not usually considered to have been a good thing – it tried to bottle up Europe for the Bourbons and Hapsburgs after 1815 – an Unholy Alliance might not be a bad thing.)

The book begins with the war which Lenin averted in 1918 and ends with the war which Stalin failed to avert in 1941. In between there is much interesting documentation of detail. And the book is basically a defence of the Nazi-Soviet Pact on the old Comintern/Cominform line. But Lenin’s Brest-Litovsk capitulation in 1918 is very inadequately dealt with. And the military outcome of the 1939 Pact is absurdly said to have been a “Disaster”. In the mid-1970s I could not agree with an academic expert ( of Eurocommunist disposition) on Soviet economic history that the collectivisation was a “catastrophe”, and he parted company with me. I could apply a word like “catastrophe” to an event which involved a collapse of the state.

Despite the ideology of economic determinism, the Bolshevik system gave absolute priority to politics. The structure of agriculture in the 1920s was out of keeping with the structure of the state. But Lenin had explained that he was establishing the “superstructure” first, and that the superstructure could later proceed with the establishment of the “base”. If that was not done there would sooner or later have been an event of real economic determination, whereby market activity undermined the totalitarian state. In 1929 the state reorganised the economy and consolidated itself. It struck me as a devaluation of language to describe that as a catastrophe.

And likewise I can see no military disaster in 1941. There was a disaster in France in 1940. The front was broken. A German force went through the gap and took the main body of the Allied army in the rear. The Allied army, being properly mobilised for war, could not turn around to fight on its rear. When a strong German force appeared behind it the battle was over. And since the entire Allied army was in the one place, there was only one battle in that war.

Nothing like that happened in Russia. The front was never broken. There were numerous salients and encirclements – which in terms of miles were very great by French standards but which were small in terms of Russian space – but there was nothing equivalent to the Ardennes breakthrough.

The Allied armies were fully mobilised in 1940. The Soviet Army was not fully mobilised in 1941.


Stalin is generally considered to have made a major strategic blunder because he did not have his army mobilised and at the front in 1941. His subsequent conduct of the war showed that he was a more than competent commander-in-chief. It seems to me that he must have looked at what happened in France and been puzzled as to how to fight a defensive war against Manstein and Guderian.

There was a purely military element in the affairs of 1940 and 1941 which ideological critics have never taken account of, or seemed to be aware of. There was something as new as the Mongols were in their time. The established maxims of war – with the superiority of the defence at the core – were suddenly set aside in May-June 1940 when an inferior attacking force paralysed a stronger defensive force. There was a Joker in the pack.

There was no agreement as to how the new tactic devised by Manstein and Guderian should be countered. And even if there had been agreement, the actual skill required to do it was undeveloped.

If Stalin had taken heed of warnings that Hitler intended to attack that summer, and had mobilised, very likely the same thing would have happened in Russia as had happened in France. In the event, because Stalin did nothing until Hitler invaded, the Russian army was not sitting at the front to be broken. And the effect of the rapid mobilisation following the attack was to produce defence in depth. There were open spaces for the Germans to drive around, and local encirclements for them to make – but the Russian front was always in front of them.

Whether entirely by accident or by partial design (because the mental reservations of a Commander-in-Chief are a military factor), Stalin found the counter to the new military tactic – the “expanding torrent”, the flood through a breach made by the armoured spearhead. During the summer of 1941 his army was coming up piecemeal to meet the Germans, and therefore it was always in front of them.

Because the Russian army was not mobilised, it could not be broken in one great battle. And as battle followed battle the Russian army developed to take on the Germans in great set-pieces.

I don’t think it is reasonable, in the light of military affairs as they actually existed in 1940-1941, to regret that the Soviet Army was not mobilised at the moment of the German attack. If it had been there might well have been a disaster.

Von Manstein in his memoirs repeated an evergreen military truth: “the strategic aim of any war is to smash the military defensive power of the enemy” (Lost Victories, 1958 edition, page 276). He repeated it because it was something he could not get Hitler to understand. Geoff Roberts does not understand it either.

The outstanding success of German arms in 1940, and the fact that a victory was almost gained in 1941, was due to the relative autonomy of the German military. It depended on strategic originality at the higher levels of command and individual virtuosity at lower levels. If the Army had been Nazified, as some of the Nazi leaders wanted, it is probable that German military success would have been much more modest, and that as a consequence the Nazi system would have survived much longer. That system was internally stable. (Stalin was among the first to understand that it was stabilised by the Night of the Long Knives.) It was broken from the outside after the military freak produced by Von Seekt, Manstein and Guderian united the world against it by bringing it victories beyond Hitler’s wildest dreams, which he did not know how to consolidate.

Manstein’s memoirs are entirely unapologetic. And nobody was better placed than him, subjectively or objectively, to see how that part of the Soviet Army which was mobilised in June 1941 was deployed. And, as he saw it,

“it would be nearest the truth to describe the Soviet dispositions … as a ‘deployment against every contingency.”

“On the 22nd June 1941, undoubtedly, the Soviet Union’s forces were still strung out in such depth that they could then have been used only in a defensive role. Yet the pattern could have been switched in no time to meet any change in Germany’s political situation. With a minimum of delay the Red Army – each of whose army groups was numerically, if not qualitatively, superior to the German army group facing it – could have closed up and become capable of going over to the attack” (page 181).

Because the military defensive power of the Soviet Union was not broken in 1941, the Red Army acquired sufficient military ability to bring the greater population and resources of Russia to bear on the German Army and to push it back into central Europe.

Geoff Roberts’s book is chiefly an account of diplomatic manoeuvrings and alignments in the 1930s. In chapters 6 and 7 he describes Moscow’s efforts in 1939 to make a hard military alliance against Germany with Britain and France, to become effective the moment Germany moved against any of the three or against a state which accepted their guarantee or against a neutral. And he describes how, when Britain and France refused to engage in serious negotiations, Russia made a treaty with Germany instead.

This was in accordance not only with Lenin’s injunction that the Soviet Union should survive by exploiting imperialist contradictions as expediency dictated, but with the general realpolitik of international relations. And it seems that Geoff Roberts accepts the realpolitik of the matter – until he says abruptly in the last paragraph of chapter 7:

“Essential though it was in military terms, the inability of the British and French to satisfy the Russians on the question of troop movements through Poland and Rumania does not fully account for the Soviet Union’s decision to break off negotiations. Nor does it explain the positive act of concluding a non-aggression treaty with Germany. The collapse … of any immediate prospect of an effective pact of alliance with Britain and France was a necessary but not a sufficient condition for the Russo-German rapprochement. Indispensable to any understanding of the circumstances in which Soviet Russia opted for the pact with Nazi Germany is a review of the evolution of relations between these two states in the spring and summer of 1939” (page 142).

I searched the next chapter for the “sufficient condition” of the treaty with Germany, but I could not find it: unless it be that Moscow and Berlin needed to be in diplomatic contact if they were to make a treaty.

The difficulty about a Triple Alliance to defend Poland was that the Polish Government would not agree that the Red Army should have access to its western frontier. In this matter the Poles had a choice of evils: war with Germany or voluntary subjection to Russia. It would not have been sensible to suppose that the Red Army would have left Poland after defending it, as the British Army had left France in 1919.

The inherent logic of the book is that the treaty with Hitler was a measure of elementary prudence. Given what was going on in the world just then, it would not have been prudent to hang about But the logic of the book is unacceptable to its author. Here is the final paragraph:

“Looking back after fifty years, the most striking quality of Soviet policy in the triple alliance negotiations is its political passivity. In April 1939 the Soviet leadership opted for a war alliance against Germany, made their proposals known, and then sat back and waited to see what would happen. They set the British and French a not unreasonable test of their intentions, but failed to intervene actively to shape the outcome. The result was that they found themselves faced with the choice of an uncertain alliance with the West or a desperate gamble on a deal with Hitler. This outcome was not entirely, or even mainly, of their own making. Perhaps no other outcome was possible. All we can be certain of is that, blinded by their own dogma, the Stalin leadership failed to make the most of an historic opportunity to forge an anti-fascist alliance with the West” (pages 225-226).

That paragraph strikes me as a retreat into the shreds of an ideological fantasy by a mind which has strayed for too long into the distasteful affairs of the real world.

In negotiations between two powerful states there is necessarily an element of “political passivity”: each, when it has made its proposals, must wait to see what the other will do. How does Geoff Roberts think Moscow might have “intervened actively” in the deliberations of the British Government?

As to the “historic opportunity to forge an anti-fascist alliance with the West”: no such opportunity existed. In order for it to exist, Stalin would have had to jettison Leninism and establish the Soviet state on a political philosophy which Lenin smashed, broke up, destroyed, pulverised, and did lots of other drastic things to. And although, as Althusser has told us, Stalinism was a humanist deviation from Leninism, it was not so deviant that it was prepared to adopt the liberal-democratic world outlook.


I pointed out about ten years ago that the Nazi-Soviet Pact did not destroy Poland or Partition it. It only made provision for avoidance of conflict in a certain eventuality which might occur during the collapse of the Versailles settlement. It was a prudent precaution. And if that prudent precaution camouflaged an ambitious intent, then such is the way of the world. Stalin learned from Lenin that defence is often the best means of attack. He might equally have learned that lesson from British history.

The Nazi-Soviet Pact was a defensive precaution which enabled Russia to tend to its interests in eastern Poland when the Polish state crumbled, without bringing it into the European war on either side. Geoff Roberts appears to accept this view on pages 158-159. But it leaves no lasting impression on his argument.

The Soviet occupation of eastern Poland did not begin until a fortnight after the German invasion, by which time the Polish state was in collapse. But if Germany had found itself engaged in a major war in Poland, it is far from certain that the Red Army would have moved in. The Pact was not a programme. What was actually done followed from the course of material events. Pact or no pact, the Red Army would have occupied eastern Poland when the Polish state was seen to be crumbling.

It was reasonable of the Polish government not to invite the Red Army in as a protection against the Germans because it did not wish to be a puppet of either state. And it was reasonable of the Red Army to occupy eastern Poland when the Polish Army proved to be incapable of sustaining a war with Germany.


When moving into Poland, Russia declared itself neutral in the great war which had been declared between Germany, France and Britain. “Molotov characterised the war as imperialist“, says Geoff Roberts, and dressed up the situation in an ideological garb that was not new:

“the Leninist analysis of imperialism, the anti-Versailles tenor, the identification of Britain and France as the main enemies of peace, the characterisation of German foreign policy as essentially just and progressive, were all familiar fare for anyone cognizant of Soviet foreign policy in the 1920s and early 1930s” (pages 172-173).

And what else is to be expected but “the Leninist analysis of imperialism“? Lenin gave the· Soviet state its internal totalitarian structure and the categories by which it understood the world. Having rejected liberal democracy in its own constitution, Bolshevism could only see the liberal democracy of capitalism in the era of imperialism as, at best, a weakness and, as a general rule, as a sham designed for wasting the energy of the masses in the pursuit of illusion.

Fascism was seen as the political norm of advanced capitalism, and as being, in that sense, more progressive. The Bukharinist conception· of imperialism, with its admiration of German wartime economy, was the stimulus to Lenin’s doctrine on the subject, and it always lurked beneath the surface of Leninism. In 1940-1941 Labour Monthly (conducted by that sternest and most rigorous of Leninists, R. Palme Dutt), accepted the Allied collapse in France as the judgement of History on liberal democracy, and it accepted the two forms of totalitarianism as the appropriate structure of the modem world.

The Communist world, being Leninist, could not regard liberal democracy as a social form in which it had any long-term interest. It mourned the passing of liberalism in Europe in 1940 as little as Lenin mourned the passing of liberalism in Russia in 1918. It is an inexcusable weakness in Geoff Roberts’s book that he does not describe this state of affairs, or even give a hint that it existed.

He makes brief mention of Harry Pollitt’s moment of folly in September 1939, when he proposed that the Communist Party should rally to the support of British imperialism. It was folly because it was not persisted in. It would have been a marvellous thing if a modern Cobbett had emerged from the ranks of the Comintern in 1939 – a radical of Merrie England who would spin his truth out of his own human impulses

without regard for the orthodoxies of power or doctrine, and be the people’s champion against Tories and scientific socialists alike. But Pollitt did not have the nerve or the heart for that. He went back to thinking correct thoughts according to the Leninist scheme of omniscience. The role of Cobbett – the radical who straddled the old and the new and reformed in the medium of tradition – was left to Ernest Bevin.

Given that the Leninist vision was still in its prime in 1939, there was no common ground between the Soviet Union and Britain. There was therefore no “historic opportunity to forge an antifascist alliance with the West“.

The active Anglo-Soviet alliance against Nazi Germany was formed only when the unsuspected military joker in the German pack had brought both states to the verge of the abyss. And given what both states were, I cannot see how else an active military alliance between them might have come about


Leninism now appears to be in terminal decay, and an adventure which began in March 1918 seems to be at an end. At this juncture it is impossible to tell.

The adventure began when Lenin browbeat and blackmailed the Bolshevik party into capitulating to the German ultimatum. Geoff Roberts accepts Lenin’s account that a defence against German arms was impossible. But it was impossible only because Lenin was against it He was an ultra-defeatist for the purpose of securing a breathing-space under German protection for his new state. He gave Germany scope for a final offensive in the West. And Germany gave him the opportunity for statecraft. During the following six months he constructed the skeleton of the totalitarian state. But when Germany collapsed he was disengaged from Europe.

If he had resisted the German advance in March 1918, he would have been amongst the arbiters of Europe in November (or earlier, since Russian resistance would have hastened the end).

But if he had been engaged in war with Germany during 1918, he would not have got the one-party state. It was the capitulation of March that caused the breach between his party and all other parties and enabled him to construct the streamlined totalitarian state. And if he had been involved in European reconstruction the pressure towards liberal diversity would have intensified.

Lenin’s political triumph of March 1918 gained him the Bolshevik state in isolation. In 1920 he tried to break into European affairs by invading Poland, and was repulsed.

The Bolshevik state became a force alien to and at odds with the structure of Europe, in so far as that structure was democratic in the liberal sense – and fascism was a sort of imitative reaction against it.

It seems that the Leninist system is now crumbling from within, in the minds of the very people who operate it. Scientific socialism leaves the people at large with nothing to think. There might be a fair amount of culture in the arty sense, but there is no autonomous medium of human culture within which individuals might be spontaneously active. At the human centre of things there is nothing. And that condition is not one which can be remedied by economic policy.

It has up to the present been reasonable to suppose that Gorbachev is a very ambitious Leninist manoeuvring to take Western Europe off guard. If he is not doing that – or if in the process of doing it he became aware of the vacuum in the heart of Russia and was caught by the spirit of Solzhenitsyn – then Europe is going into flux. And if Europe is going into flux, the socialist movement will need to have more in its head than a muffled echo of


This article appeared in November 1989, in Issue 14 of Labour and Trade Union Review, now Labour Affairs.  For more, see https://labouraffairsmagazine.com/very-old-issues-images/

[1] Geoffrey Roberts: The Unholy Alliance: Stalin’s Pact with Hitler, I.B.Tauris, 1989.