How Stalin Distorted Marxism

On May Day 1932, the Communist Party USA released "Toward Soviet America," penned by William Z. Foster who was at that time the Communist candidate for president of the U.S.

This book presented the program and policies of the CPUSA and was in line with the political perspective of the world communist movement under the leadership of Stalin, who had unseated Bukharin from the leadership of the Communist International not long before this period. Foster's book contained the policy and perspective that the late Gus Hall, former chair of the Communist Party USA, would later refer to as "the greatest mistake we ever made."

In "Toward Soviet America," Foster asserts, "The policy of the Social Democracy is basically that of Fascism…. The principal difference is that Social Democracy hides its Fascism…. Thus, in the period of the decline of capitalism, Social Reformism becomes Social Fascism." Foster goes on, "Developing Fascism in the United States has a main foundation in the leadership of the American Federation of Labor." Later, Foster quotes Stalin, "Fascism is a militant organization of the bourgeoisie resting upon the active support of Social Democracy" (177-178, 191).

This equation of social democracy with fascism helped bring about the horrible defeat of the working class in Germany and only after this defeat was Bukharin's policy of the peoples front against fascism adopted and presented by Dimitrov in the form we recognize today as the center-left alliance against the ultra right. (This I Cannot Forget, Larina pp. 11-37)

Stalin deviated from Lenin's policies in two clear ways that Bukharin had defended. One way was the "market socialist" approach of the "New Economic Policy" and the other way was the path of broad peoples unity against imperialism, fascism and finance capital that can be found in Lenin's "Left Wing Communism an Infantile Disorder."

Stalin's approach was one of extreme economic centralization and political sectarianism as he and Trotsky carried out a "race" to prove who was the "most revolutionary." So much attention has been paid to the Trotsky-Stalin conflict that Bukharin and his contemporary Gramsci have often been ignored when they, from the historical record, are the real "inheritors" of Lenin's Marxism. (Antonio Gramsci: Life of a Revolutionary, Fiori, Giuseppe pp.144-145.)

Foster (and Stalin, who approved of Foster's book at that time) completely misjudged the upcoming New Deal era. He writes, "the policies of the Progressives, although dressed up in radical phraseology, are in practice indistinguishable from those of the ultra reactionaries: sufficient proof of this being the enthusiastic support given to the candidacy of … Roosevelt, Progressive Mogul, in the most Bourbon sections of the South. Progressivism is a grave danger to the working class."

The only "justification" for this viewpoint is "competition with the Trotskyists" to show who was the "most" revolutionary. (The Trotskyists were saying almost identical things at the same time.)

For his part, Bukharin described what really happening. When Bukharin was falsely tried and executed by Stalin and his government a few years from this date it had become clear that he was probably killed because he was a serious and popular rival to Stalin for leadership especially because he was so obviously right about so many of the issues that Stalin had been so clearly wrong about. There stood a clear alternative voice to Stalin and Trotsky and that is the man Lenin called, "the favorite of the Party" – Bukharin. He was the real author of the winning political perspective of World War 2, "the peoples front against fascism," was falsely accused of treason and killed. ("THIS I CANNOT FORGET" Larina, Anna pp.11-33.)

Stalin, Trotsky, and Bukharin all had one error in common. They each, after Lenin's death, contributed to what Lenin had expressly asked they not do and that was build a cult of personality around Lenin. Lenin, who called himself a "consistent marxist," was entombed against his last wishes and was made the "co-founder" with the new term "marxist-leninist." This became the beginning of the process of "sanctifying" communist leadership and robbing communist's of the brilliant example of Lenin who used the foundation and tools discovered by Marx to deeply and painstakingly examine actual current reality by gathering "truth from facts" rather than truth by the leaders' pronouncements. "We do not regard Marx's theory as something completed  and inviolable; on the contrary, we are convinced that it has only laid the foundation stone of the science socialists must develop in all directions if they wish to keep pace with life. We think that an independent elaboration of Marx's theory is especially essential…; for this theory provides only general guiding principles, which, in particular, … are applied differently." (Lenin CW VOL. 4, PP.210-214.)

War and crimes

From the siege of Moscow to the end of World War Two, Stalin was one of the greatest military leaders in history. Being a master of the art of war does not make someone a great Marxist. Stalin's Marxism was filled with disastrous judgments. His errors rise far past the level of "mistakes." Some of his political acts rise to the level of crimes against humanity. Marxism demands ruthless honesty about all of this. Only on this foundation can 21st century Communism be built.

One of the great achievements of Marxism is reality-based dialectics, understanding contradictory phenomena in real events, people and processes. Stalin, the military leader who emerged as the Nazi horde entered the outskirts of Moscow, did more than any other single person to destroy the Fascist war machine and bring about the total defeat of Hitler. One of Stalin's Trotskyist opponents, Issac Deutscher, wrote, "(Stalin) encouraged the non-political general, devoted to his job.... He brushed aside all sterile pretensions of seniority and paid attention only to performance in battle…. The regeneration of the army, of its morale, and of its commanding staff was one of Russia's most remarkable achievements for which credit was due to Stalin" (Stalin, A Political Biography, Deutscher  pp.494-497).

This same leader who did so much to defeat Hitler, pushed a political line on the communist movement, especially the German Communist Party, the largest Communist Party in the world at that time outside the Soviet Union, that directly led to the Nazi conquest of power. There is no plausible excuse that can exonerate Stalin from the utterly disastrous line he ruthlessly enforced on the Communist International that the Social Democrats were as dangerous or even more dangerous than the fascists. On page 174 of the CPUSA's platform for the 1932 election, William Z. Foster explained Stalin's basic idea that was so disastrous to the workers movement in Germany, "One of the basic features of this trend of world capitalism towards Fascism is the gradual fascisization of the conservative trade unions and Socialist parties" (Toward Soviet America, Foster pp. 174). This sectarian concept made it impossible for the German communists to lead the working class of Germany to a united front against Hitler.

The Social Democratic Party and the German communists together outnumbered the Nazi's for a long time. In the last election free of mass Nazi terror, the July 1932 election, their votes combined almost directly equaled the Nazi vote. The combined "Working Class Left" polled 36.2 percent of the  vote and the Nazi vote was 37.4 percent. "Virtually all serious analysts agree that the overwhelming majority of Nazi electoral support came from Protestant lower middle class people who previously had voted for the bourgeois parties, or had not voted at all… the bourgeois parties net loss was 31.2 percentage points ... the Marxist parties picked up voters" (German Social Democracy 1918-1933, Richard Hunt pp. 117-119). United, the German working class would have had a real fighting chance to beat the Nazis with strikes, mass protest, and armed struggle if necessary. Divided, there was no chance at all.

Some supporters of Stalin down through the decades since this horrible moment in world history want to blame the Social Democrats alone for the lack of unity of the German working class but this is just "spin" when the self-proclaimed vanguard party of the German workers, following the line of the Communist International, directly controlled by Stalin, proclaimed the Social Democrats an equal enemy to fascism. How would any united front, much less an all peoples front be possible? Some supporters of Stalin also have argued that German workers were terrorized into submission. This is true only because unity in the crucial final moment was impossible in the face of such sectarianism. After all, this was the same workers movement that had overthrown the Kaiser in November, 1918 and ended World War 1 with a mass armed rebellion. The largest responsibility for the greatest defeat of the workers movement in the 20th century, Hitler's rise to power, lies with Stalin. 

Inner conflict and cynicism

Lenin's leadership team was amazingly diverse. After all, Stalin, Trotsky and Bukharin all worked together under Lenin. Lenin fought for unity, but did not murder those in the leadership team who disagreed with him. He debated with them, fiercely demanding high standards of evidence and principle in his opponents arguments, always calling people to task for unclear, illogical, factually weak positions. He brought the best out in people, who on their own were fatally flawed. He even threatened to resign several times in order to make his points. Lenin was a master of Marxism  at the global level, European wide level, national, regional and city by city level. One of Lenin's most powerful accomplishments was his ability to translate Marxism to the individual and personal level and then return to broad general points, not just "What is to Be Done" but what is to be done by you and I right now.

Stalin was famously weak in his Marxism on a personal and interpersonal level. He eventually put on trial and had executed almost every single member of Lenin's entire leadership team in a "witchhunt" that makes " Salem" look like a tupperware party. Toward the end of Lenin's politically active life, in 1922, Lenin could feel the hand of death and began to act  from his sick bed to deal with the political problem of his own passing. Stalin's power and position combined with his fatal flaws was one such problem.  

Lenin said,  "Stalin is too rude and this defect ... becomes intolerable in a Secretary-General. That is why I suggest ... removing Stalin from that post ... and appointing another ... more tolerant, more loyal, more polite and more considerate to the comrades, less capricious ... it is a detail which can assume decisive importance" (CW Lenin vol.36 pp.596, 1/4/1923).   

Lenin's final two letters before he was forever silenced by a stroke concerned this very issue, "Dear Comrade Stalin: You have been so rude as to summon my wife to the telephone and use bad language…. I have no intention of forgetting  so easily what has been done against me, and it goes without saying that what has been done against my wife I consider having been done against me ... make your apologies, or ... relations between us should be broken off" (CW Lenin V 45 pp.608 3/5/1923). Lenin's use of the  term "rude" more closely resembles the 21st century usage of the term "abusive." In a situation of true collective leadership a problem such as this is more manageable but in a situation of one man rule  and the "cult of the personality" which grew up around Stalin this problem became, as Lenin himself said, "a detail which can assume decisive importance." A careful analysis of Stalin's worst deviations from Marxism show that some of them flow directly from his abusive, intolerant, inconsiderate and capricious characteristics.

Stalin was extremely cynical about people and their potential and this is common with very abusive individuals. Under Lenin's guidance and in collective leadership he provided a kind of balance to Trotsky's "excessive self assurance" and Bukharin's weakness with dialectical thinking (seeing all sides of a complex issue) (CW Lenin V 36 pp.594-595 12/24/1922).

In the late 1920s and early 1930s, Stalin, in leadership by himself, with his cynical tendency unchecked, then gutted Marxism's emphasis on carefully considered revolutionary action. Stalin's disastrous political line equating the Social Democrats as an equal danger to the fascists was a prejudiced course of action reflecting his cynicism about the Social Democrats rather than a careful examination of them. Stalin did not abandon this ill-conceived perspective until after it was too late to stop Hitler. As Lenin might have put it, the "What is to Be Done?" was replaced by "Left Wing Communism an Infantile Disorder."

Stalin replaced Marxian dialectics with a mechanistic version that emphasized the "inevitability" of socialism in place of Karl Marx's stark choice for revolutionaries in "The Communist Manifesto," "a fight that each time ended, either in the revolutionary re-constitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes" (CW Marx Engels V 6 pp.482). For Marx the possibility of terrible defeat was so real that all prejudice and intellectual short cuts had to be abandoned because each serious choice in a crisis that revolutionaries make on the "ground they have been given" can lead to advance or "the common ruin of the contending classes." Stalin's disastrous line equating Social Democracy as an equal enemy to the workers movement as Fascism was so clearly prejudiced and filled with intellectual short cuts that it can only be explained, at least in part, by the same character flaws that Lenin wanted Stalin removed as Secretary General of the Communist Party for in 1922. All revolutionaries have to accept "the ground they have been given" such as the militarized imperialism and ferocious racism in Germany in 1932, but Marxists have no excuse to abandon careful analysis for cynical prejudice. We have no excuse now nor should we excuse Stalin.

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  • Amadon must be appreciated for delving into these historical questions.
    --jim lane in Dallas

    Posted by jim lane, 04/05/2011 6:00pm (11 years ago)

  • This is an excellent introduction to a long and complex topic, but I am in basic agreement with Phil Amadon here. I might quibble over Stalin's military role; wiping out much of his officer corps in the purges on the eve of the war didn't help much, to say the least. As for Bukharin, history has absolved him in most ways. Had he the strength in matters of organization that Chou En-Lai had, he might have survived and overcome his nemesis--but that's Monday morning quarterbacking. In any case, I think the struggle between him and Stalin was the main event of those years, with the battle with Trotskyism a minor side show. I have read Bukharin's testimony at his sham trial, and if you read it carefully, between the lines, you can see he's speaking beyond his executioners. As he said in a note to his wife near the end, when we salute the Red Flag, take note that it's stained with a drop of his blood. Stephen Cohen's book on the topic is a good source.

    Posted by Carl Davidson, 04/05/2011 8:37am (11 years ago)

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