Alan Woods discusses Trotsky’s great unfinished work, Stalin: a unique piece of Marxist literature that attempts to explain some of the most decisive events of the 20th century, not just in terms of epoch-making economic and social transformations, but in the individual psychology of those who appear as protagonists in a great historical drama. Support the publication of Trotsky's Stalin by Wellred Books by making a pledge today.
On August 20th 1940, Trotsky’s life was brutally ended when a Stalinist agent brought an ice pick crashing down on his defenceless head. Among the works left unfinished was the second part of Stalin. Trotsky’s Stalin is probably unique in Marxist literature in that it attempts to explain some of the most decisive events of the 20th century, not just in terms of epoch-making economic and social transformations, but in the individual psychology of those who appear as protagonists in a great historical drama.
The relationship between individual psychology and historical processes provides a fascinating theme for students of history and forms the basis of the present work. How did it come about that Stalin, who began his political life as a revolutionary and a Bolshevik, ended up a tyrant and a monster? Was this something pre-ordained, whether by genetic factors or childhood upbringing?
There are some circumstances in Stalin’s early life, painstakingly analysed by Trotsky, that suggest certain tendencies towards revengefulness, envy and a cruel, even sadistic streak. Taken in isolation, however, these tendencies cannot have a decisive significance. Not every child who is abused by a drunken father becomes a sadistic dictator, just as not every unsuccessful artist, resentful at his rejection by Viennese society, becomes Adolf Hitler.
For such transformations to occur, great historic events and social convulsions are necessary. In the case of Hitler it was Germany’s economic collapse following the Wall Street Crash that provided him with an opportunity to lead a mass movement of the ruined petty bourgeois and de-classed lumpen-proletariat. In the case of Stalin it was the ebb of the movement that followed the Russian Revolution, the exhaustion of the masses following the great exertions of the War, Revolution and Civil War and the isolation of the Revolution in conditions of frightful backwardness and poverty that led to the rise of a privileged bureaucracy.
The millions of officials that elbowed the workers aside hardened into a privileged caste. These upstarts needed a leader who would defend their interests. But this leader had to be a man with revolutionary credentials – a Bolshevik with a solid pedigree: “Cometh the moment, cometh the man.” The Soviet bureaucracy found its representative in Joseph Djughashvili, known to us as Stalin.
At first sight, Stalin would not seem an obvious choice to step into Lenin’s shoes. Stalin had no ideology, other than to gain power and hold onto it. He had a tendency towards suspicion and violence. He was a typical apparatchik – narrow-minded and ignorant, like the people whose interests he represented. The other Bolshevik leaders spent years in Western Europe and spoke foreign languages fluently, and participated personally in the international workers’ movement. Stalin spoke no foreign languages and even spoke Russian poorly with a thick Georgian accent.
This paradox is explained by Trotsky. A revolutionary epoch demands heroic leaders, great writers and orators, bold thinkers who are able to put into words the unconscious or semi-conscious aspirations of the masses to change society, translating them into timely slogans. It is an age of giants. But a counter-revolutionary period is one of ebb, retreat and demoralization. Such a period does not require giants but people of a far smaller stature. It is the age of the opportunist, the conformist and the apostate.
In such circumstances, bold visionaries and heroic individuals are no longer required. The mediocrity rules supreme, and Stalin was the supreme mediocrity. Of course, this definition does not exhaust his qualities, or he would never have succeeded in elevating himself above the heads of people who were in every respect his superiors. He also possessed an iron will and determination, a stubborn, indomitable thirst for power and personal advancement and an innate skillfulness in manipulating people, exploiting their weak side, manoeuvring and intriguing.
Such qualities in the context of an advancing revolution are of only third-rate importance. But in the ebb-tide of the revolution, they can be utilised to great effect. The way in which this applied in Stalin’s case is explained by Trotsky with a mass of carefully assembled material drawn both from his personal archives and many other sources, including the memoirs of Bolsheviks, Stalinists, Mensheviks and particularly Georgian revolutionaries who knew the man intimately.
The role of the individual
The attempt to reduce great historic events to individual personalities is superficial and usually reflects an inability to approach history from a scientific point of view. Historical materialism finds the mainspring of history in the development of the productive forces. But this by no means denies the role of the individual in history. On the contrary, the historical process can only be expressed through the agency of men and women.
To discover the complex interplay between the particular and the general, between personalities and social processes, is a difficult task. But it can be done. Marx dealt with this aspect brilliantly in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, where he shows how, under certain historical circumstances, a mediocrity, like the man Victor Hugo called Napoléon le Petit (‘Napoleon the Little’), can come to power. The precise way in which the individual interacts with objective processes has never been so painstakingly examined.
Did the personality of Stalin determine the fate of the USSR? It is sufficient to pose the question to expose its complete hollowness. The defeat of the European Revolution meant that the regime of workers’ democracy established by the October Revolution could not survive. Once the Revolution was isolated in conditions of frightful economic and cultural backwardness, the rise of the bureaucracy was inevitable, with or without the presence of Stalin. But one can say that the particularly horrific nature of the regime, its sadistic methods and the monstrous scale of the Terror were determined to a very great extent by Stalin’s character, his paranoia and his unquenchable thirst for revenge.
Stalin is a fascinating study of the way in which the peculiar character of an individual, his personal traits and psychology, interacted with great events. For that very reason, it has had its detractors. There have been many attempts to present Stalin as a work motivated by Trotsky’s desire to discredit his enemy in the Kremlin, or at the very least as an account in which factors of a personal or psychological nature rendered an objective study impossible. Such a superficial judgement does a serious injustice to the author. Trotsky already anticipated these criticisms when he wrote:
“The point which I now occupy is unique. I therefore feel that I have the right to say that I have never entertained a feeling of hatred towards Stalin. In certain circles there is a lot said and written about my so-called hatred for Stalin which apparently fills me with gloomy and troubled judgements. I can only shrug my shoulders in response to all this. Our ways have parted so long ago that whatever personal relationship there was between us has long ago been utterly extinguished. For my part, and to the extent that I am the tool of historical forces, which are alien and hostile to me, my personal feelings towards Stalin are indistinguishable from my feelings towards Hitler or the Japanese Mikado.” (Stalin, present edition, Chapter 14: ‘The Thermidorian Reaction’; section: ‘The revenge of history’)
It is characteristic of academic historians to hide behind a façade of what is supposed to be impartiality. But, in fact, every historian writes from a particular viewpoint. This is particularly evident in histories of the Russian Revolution – or even the French Revolution, if it comes to that. As proof of this we can point to the flood of ‘learned’ books on the Russian Revolution that is churned out every year, especially since the fall of the Soviet Union, that claim to furnish incontrovertible proof that Lenin and Trotsky were bloodthirsty monsters and the Soviet Union never accomplished anything except the KGB and the Gulag.
One only has to scratch the surface for the mask of academic objectivity to slip, revealing the ugly contorted features of an anti-Communist fanatic. In contrast to the hypocritical pseudo-objectivity of academic historians, Trotsky approaches the question of the Stalinist counter-revolution as a Marxist and a revolutionist. Is there a contradiction between having a passionate interest in changing society and at the same time being capable of an objective appraisal of historical events and the role of individuals in the historical process? Let Trotsky answer for himself:
“In the eyes of a philistine a revolutionary point of view is virtually equivalent to an absence of scientific objectivity. We think just the opposite: only a revolutionist – provided, of course, that he is equipped with the scientific method – is capable of laying bare the objective dynamics of the revolution. Apprehending thought in general is not contemplative, but active. The element of will is indispensable for penetrating the secrets of nature and society. Just as a surgeon, on whose scalpel a human life depends, distinguishes with extreme care between the various tissues of an organism, so a revolutionist, if he has a serious attitude toward his task, is obliged with strict conscientiousness to analyse the structure of society, its functions and reflexes.” (Trotsky, The Chinese Revolution, 1938)
About the new edition
Nobody can ever claim to have produced the definitive edition of Stalin. It was unfinished on the day of Trotsky’s assassination and will remain unfinished for all time. What we can say without fear of contradiction is that this is the most complete version of the book that has ever been published.
There have been other editions of the book, they have never been satisfactory, and some were even misleading. In preparing for this project, we compared the translations of other versions, all of which were inadequate in different ways. We have brought together all the material that was available from the Trotsky archives in English and supplemented it with additional material in Russian.
The new edition contains an additional 86,000 words. That is an increase of approximately thirty percent over the book as a whole. But in the second part, where almost all of the new material is to be found, the text has been augmented by approximately ninety percent.
If Trotsky had lived, it is very clear that he would have produced an infinitely better work. He would have made a rigorous selection of the raw material. Like an accomplished sculptor he would have polished it and then polished it again, until it reached the dazzling heights of a work of art. We cannot hope to attain such heights. We do not know what material the great man would have selected or rejected. But we feel we are under a historic obligation at least to make available to the world all the material that is available to us.
Despite all the difficulties, this work has been of great educational value. We have found in many pieces that were discarded as things of no interest fascinating insights into Trotsky’s thought. Like the last works of Marx, Engels and Lenin, the writings of Trotsky’s last few years are the products of a mature mind that was able to draw on a whole lifetime of rich experience. Of particular interest are his observations about dialectics and Marxist theory in the Appendix ‘Stalin as a Theoretician’, which, as far as I know, have never been published before.
In making available for the first time a great deal of material that was arbitrarily excluded from Stalin and hidden in dusty boxes for three quarter of a century, we are discharging a debt to a great revolutionary and simultaneously providing a wealth of new and valuable material to the new generation that is striving to find the ideas and programme to change the world. This is the only monument he would have ever wanted.