Stalin’s Short Cuts and the Judgment of History

Stalin’s attempts at “short-cutting” history are numerous. They are also rather ironic, since classical Marxism took a more “evolutionary” than “revolutionary” approach to politics. According to Karl Marx the transition from feudalism to capitalism to socialism was both gradual and inevitable. More moderate socialists, including many Mensheviks, believed that they should ally with the bourgeois democratic revolution against Tsarist autocracy as a necessary phase in societal progress toward full communism.  By contrast the Bolsheviks under Lenin favored violence and direct action. The proletarian state must be built as quickly as possible.

Stalin was initially wary of Lenin’s bold tactics during the early stages of revolution. But his attitude changed. With his appointment as commissar during the Russian Civil War the Georgian radical was able to exercise his penchant for arrogant and ruthless action. Lenin’s overthrow of the Provisional Government and the terroristic military and economic measures of War Communism were prototypes of the types of short cuts which Stalin would pursue later in his career.

Many Bolsheviks were impatient for change, but Stalin saw his role as particularly significant. By the late 1920s the Soviet leader had consolidated his power by successfully playing off different wings of the party against each other.  As the emerging autocrat of the Kremlin he grew wary of compromise measure like the New Economic Policy and urged immediate collectivization and industrialization.  He believed that cultural, military and economic transformation had to be speeded up. Facts were ignored. Quotas for agricultural and manufacturing output were concocted in advance, and the work of experts was disdained in favor of fanatical enthusiasm and brute force.

Both collectivization and the later purges of the Great Terror served an additional purpose in Stalin’s mind. Opponents would not be combated through normal political measures but would simply be eradicated. Here we gain a clear insight into Stalin’s ethical impatience. He is quoted as saying, “Death solves all problems; no man, no problem.” This approach applied to his dealings with both individuals and whole classes of people.

Was such an outlook “successful”? In the purely Stalinist sense perhaps it was. Russia was a country of vast resources and population. The “Vozhd” (leader) could afford to be profligate in the short-term. His system of entrenched terror, centralized control and permanent ideological mobilization created what may be cynically viewed as the perfect tyranny. Stalin’s supremacy went unchallenged until his death in 1953. But seen in terms of fundamental humanist values it was achieved amid incredible waste and brutality to the point that even his successors dismantled its worst features; while in the long-term, the Stalinist legacy eventually crumbled under the weight of its own failures. In this respect one might say that history ultimately had its revenge on the “short cuts” of the USSR.

The above commentary is taken from an essay originally submitted for the class “Stalin and Stalinism in Russian History,” taught by Prof. Irina Filatova, National Research University Higher School of Economics (offered through Coursera).

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