Sunday, November 30, 2014

A Little Stalin for a Sunday Morning - Tsarist-Like Unity Caucus, Don't Fret

With Prof Bela Kiraly, in Hungary, 2006
There's nothing that can cheer me up more for a Thanksgiving holiday weekend than reading about Joseph Stalin, whose latest bio by Steven Kotkin has been reviewed in the Sunday Times book review  http://www.nytimes.com/2014/11/30/books/review/stalin-by-stephen-kotkin.html?ref=review&_r=0, which gives the book an excellent review. It is the first of 3 volumes and covers up to 1928 - the total break with Trotsky - with whom Stalin had been in a power struggle after Lenin died.
As Kotkin says, Trotsky, a latecomer to Bolshevism, appeared factionalist, egotistic and preening, whereas Stalin could portray himself as the faithful defender of Lenin’s legacy, the man who studied Lenin’s texts and knew his works intimately, “the revolution’s hardworking, underappreciated foot soldier.” Crushing Trotsky and eliminating his supporters from the party leadership was necessary for Stalin’s consolidation of power. It was not until Trotsky had been packed off into exile that Stalin could be ready to undertake his truly revolutionary and “earth-shattering” work of collectivization.
This statement will cause some gnashing of teeth amongst some of my Trotskyist colleagues. Many schisms on the left, going on even today, are legacies of the Stalin-Trotsky power struggle. Why is this important to educational political junkies like me? Because anti-Stalinist Trotskyists  over the past 60 years have played a role in UFT politics - we can even trace Albert Shanker's political anti-Communist roots through Max Shachtman. To really understand the UFT/AFT/NYSUT and the teacher movement in general, a study of the left is necessary.

I recently posted a piece on Norms Notes -Divisions on the Left: The great Lenin debate of 2012 - and ISO extracted from this site: http://externalbulletin.org/2014/06/21/the-great-lenin-debate-of-2012/  regarding differences in the ISO (International Socialists) view of Lenin from former members. ISO in its various formats - current and historical - has also played a role in various opposition caucuses in the UFT over the past 40 years, the latest being MORE. In future posts I'll get more into the roles ISO and other so-called sectarian groups on the left - compared to people on the left who are independent of any organization - and the impact they have on mass organizations like caucuses.

I imagine the Stalin book will be trashed by some Trots.

I've been waiting for this book since finding out about it on my trip to Sicily this past October. That's a story in itself. We met an interesting couple from Dallas on our tour - amongst many interesting people. George is a lawyer for an oil and gas company and we spent many hours, along with others, discussing capitalism, socialism and the state of the world. I was considered the resident leftist - in that group. George studied history - Russian history - as I did too in college - but he knew a hell of a lot more than I did. I was surprised that he had a somewhat balanced view of Stalin and told me about the upcoming Kotkin book and how it is considered to be the most definitive and balanced view of Stalin.
Two contrasting pictures emerge from the appraisals of Joseph Stalin written by his revolutionary colleagues and competitors. On the one hand, there was, for example, a fellow Georgian who knew Stalin in his early years as a Bolshevik organizer and who describes “his unquestionably greater energy, indefatigable capacity for hard work, unconquerable lust for power and above all his enormous particularistic organizational talent.” On the other, there are the unflattering judgments of his most virulent opponents in the Bolshevik hierarchy, from Leon Trotsky, who thought Stalin the “outstanding mediocrity of our party,” to Lev Kamanev, who considered the man who came to preside over the vast expanses of the reconstituted Russian empire “a small-town politician.”
I'm interested in the organizational ability of not only Stalin but of any person even down to the club - or UFT caucus level. I'm convinced that successful organizing inside a union like the UFT requires a critical mass of a certain type of person - people who think like organizers, not ideologues. Some people say that thinking like a small town politician is absolutely necessary and activists today who might agree with Trotsky's view of Stalin on this point often eschew the necessary organizational work that needs doing. I will study the book to see exactly what made Stalin a great organizer. (I see a few people in the movement today who have that ability but they are all too few. And they don't have that stache.)

I know that my Unity Caucus ideologue right wing Social Democrats (SDUSA), of whom there are so few left, will be telling me that I am saying the opposition just needs a few Stalins to make any headway against the Tsarist-like Unity leadership. (If any Ed Notes readers have a Stalin organization building complex contact me.) But I digress.

In my year of Russian history studies at Brooklyn College with Prof Asher c. 1964-5 I got the full anti- Soviet dose. It was only in a follow up course on European History with the great Hungarian prof Bela Kiraly (A Memorable Evening with General Bela Kiraly - Ed Notes ...Jul 08, 2009), the former Stalin death camp detainee, that I, ironically, received a more balanced view of Stalin and the Cold War and learned that in history there is no simple black and white, which is one of the things that bother me about both Stalinists and Trotskyists. (Click the link above for the full story.)

I'm ordering a copy of "Stalin" from my library - 1000 pages will keep me renewing for a long time - but then again, how many people are out there who I will be in competition with?

The Times review is below the break.



Two contrasting pictures emerge from the appraisals of Joseph Stalin written by his revolutionary colleagues and competitors. On the one hand, there was, for example, a fellow Georgian who knew Stalin in his early years as a Bolshevik organizer and who describes “his unquestionably greater energy, indefatigable capacity for hard work, unconquerable lust for power and above all his enormous particularistic organizational talent.” On the other, there are the unflattering judgments of his most virulent opponents in the Bolshevik hierarchy, from Leon Trotsky, who thought Stalin the “outstanding mediocrity of our party,” to Lev Kamanev, who considered the man who came to preside over the vast expanses of the reconstituted Russian empire “a small-town politician.”

For Stephen Kotkin, the John P. Birkelund professor in history and international affairs at Princeton University, it is clearly the first assessment that comes closer to the truth. In “Stalin. Volume I: Paradoxes of Power, 1878-1928,” a masterly account that is the first of a projected three-volume study, Kotkin paints a portrait of an autodidact, an astute thinker, “a people person” with “surpassing organizational abilities; a mammoth appetite for work; a strategic mind and an unscrupulousness that recalled his master teacher, Lenin.”

Kotkin traces the major episodes of Stalin’s life up to 1928: his origins in the imperial borderland of Georgia as Iosif (Soso) Dzhughashvili, the son of an artisan shoemaker cursed by downward mobility, and his beautiful wife, who was always ambitious for her only surviving child; his youth as a decorated schoolboy, then rebellious seminarian; his days as a revolutionary organizer in Batum, Chiatura and Baku, interspersed with years spent in internal exile in northern Russia — what Kotkin designates the fragile cycle of “prison, exile, poverty”; his heady days as a member of Lenin’s inner circle in the aftermath of the revolution that brought the Bolsheviks to power and during the subsequent civil war that, as Trotsky later wrote, molded Stalin; his ascension, at Lenin’s behest, to the position of general secretary of the party, later marred by the disparaging and possibly apocryphal text of Lenin’s so-called testament — a series of dictations in which Lenin, seriously incapacitated by a number of strokes, reputedly discredited six likely successors to his rule, with Stalin prominently included; his establishment of a personal dictatorship over the Bolshevik regime and the excoriation and political or physical exile of his rivals; the first show trials and the movement toward rapid industrialization, including the brutal forced collectivization of agriculture, that Kotkin promises will be the story of Volume II and that he considers to be Stalin’s great historical accomplishment, “rearranging the entire socioeconomic landscape of one-sixth of the earth.”

Though the outlines of Stalin’s story are well known, Kotkin makes an enormous effort to debunk some of the myths. Stalin’s later brutality was, in Kotkin’s opinion, a response neither to childhood abuse at the hands of his father nor to the repressive surveillance and arbitrary governance under which he lived while a student at the seminary in what was then Tiflis. He was no more (though possibly no less) of a swashbuckling Lothario or brigand than many of his revolutionary comrades. He was not especially duplicitous toward his colleagues, nor was he especially effective in his early organization of the workers’ movements in the Caucasus.

Continue reading the main storyContinue reading the main storyContinue reading the main story
And Kotkin offers the sweeping context so often missing from all but the best biographies. In his introductory chapter, he makes the lofty assertion that a life of Stalin is akin to “a history of the world,” and while that claim is rather immoderate, he delivers not only a history of late imperial Russia and of the revolution and early Soviet state, but also frequent commentary on the global geopolitical forces in play. He deftly explores the collapse of “Russia’s vicious, archaic autocracy” under fire in World War I. He is no less artful in explaining the evolution from what he calls the absurdist and “unintentionally Dada-esque Bolshevik stab at rule” in the immediate wake of the October Revolution to the construction of the Communist state during the course of the civil war. As he insists: “Forcibly denying others a right to rule is not the same as ruling and controlling resources.” But the methods of control the Bolsheviks developed were steeped in the violent practices that can be traced directly to the old regime.

While Stalin is, of course, always a lurking presence throughout this volume, in the first 250 pages he appears only as a bit player. This is a study in personality very much dependent upon other personalities. Even as Stalin gains increasing prominence in both the Bolshevik hierarchy and Kotkin’s narrative, he shares the stage with Kamanev, Zinoviev, Bukharin, Lenin and, above all, Trotsky.

The Stalin who developed in these years could not have existed without Trotsky, and Kotkin notes that each came to define himself against the other. They were a study in similarities and contrasts. Both hailed from the borderlands, both were ethnic outsiders (Stalin, a Georgian, and Trotsky, a Jew from southern Ukraine), both were disciples of Lenin. But they bitterly disagreed over the path forward, the pace of change, the need to maintain a condition of permanent revolution, the way to breach the gap between urban socialism and rural private enterprise and the desirability of departing from the tenets of Leninism. Trotsky provided Stalin with the perfect, and necessary, foil. As Kotkin says, Trotsky, a latecomer to Bolshevism, appeared factionalist, egotistic and preening, whereas Stalin could portray himself as the faithful defender of Lenin’s legacy, the man who studied Lenin’s texts and knew his works intimately, “the revolution’s hardworking, underappreciated foot soldier.” Crushing Trotsky and eliminating his supporters from the party leadership was necessary for Stalin’s consolidation of power. It was not until Trotsky had been packed off into exile that Stalin could be ready to undertake his truly revolutionary and “earth-shattering” work of collectivization.

“Stalin” is a complex work, demanding a dedicated reader. Kotkin himself almost despairs of the challenges he faced in narrating the complicated and fractured tale of revolution, civil war and reconstruction. This volume contains more than 700 ­pages of text, with an additional 200 pages of notes and bibliography (all listed in triple columns). But it presents a riveting tale, one written with pace and aplomb. Kotkin has given us a textured, gripping examination of the foundational years of the man most responsible for the construction of the Soviet state in all its brutal glory. Ending as it does, before the years of collectivization, the purges, the struggles of World War II and the establishment of the Cold War geopolitical landscape, this first volume leaves the reader longing for the story still to come.

STALIN
Volume I: Paradoxes of Power, 1878-1928
By Stephen Kotkin
Illustrated. 949 pp. Penguin Press. $40.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Comments are welcome. Irrelevant and abusive comments will be deleted, as will all commercial links. Comment moderation is on, so if your comment does not appear it is because I have not been at my computer (I do not do cell phone moderating).