Ioseb Besarionis dze Dzhugashvili, better known to the world as Josef Stalin, has been dead for almost 70 years now. Strangely, though, he still has living supporters. Spend enough time on the socialist left, and you’ll eventually encounter this vocal minority of latter-day Stalinists. Some are just online trolls and contrarians who use Stalin’s image for shock value in absurd memes—Stalin turning SpongeBob’s ‘Goo Lagoon’ into a ‘Goo Lag,’ and so on. Others, though, are quite serious about their Stalinism, and see the USSR of the 1930s and ’40s as something to admire and imitate today. Among them are tenured academics like Dr. Asatar Bair, who recently annoyed Fox News by calling Stalin “one of the great leaders of the 20th century” who had “the strength to make tough decisions that have no easy answers.” At Montclair State University, Grover Furr has written more than a dozen books defending Stalin from various criticisms, and in Europe, historians Ludo Martens and Domenico Losurdo have each written one (Another View of Stalin and Stalin: The History and Critique of a Black Legend, respectively). Even the Slovenian (quasi)Marxist Slavoj Žižek has dabbled in Stalin apologia, notoriously declaring “better the worst of Stalinism than the best of the liberal-capitalist welfare state” in his book Trouble in Paradise. By themselves, these figures are fairly marginal, but the politics Stalin represents—admiration for dictators, disdain for democracy and debate, and a fast-and-loose approach to human rights and the historical record—are far more widespread. So how, we might ask, do otherwise intelligent people find themselves drawn to Stalinism, then and now? What is the appeal?
We can find the key word in Bair’s comments: strength. Stalinists long for a “strong” left that wins at any cost—one that isn’t afraid to fight dirty, or to use harsh and autocratic methods against its enemies. In the Anglophone West, some may have been disillusioned by the electoral defeat of figures like Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn, and concluded that democratic socialism is too “weak” for the tasks at hand, turning to more authoritarian strains instead. In the Global South, meanwhile, some labor leaders and activists see the former USSR as fairly benign compared to genocidal abusers like the U.S. and Britain, and admire Stalin himself enough to name their kids after him. Hence the jarring appearance of political figures like India’s M.K. Stalin or Sri Lanka’s Joseph Stalin (a trade unionist arrested for helping to organize a general strike in 2022). In either case, the underlying assumption is that Stalin really was the “Man of Steel” portrayed in Soviet propaganda—a tireless warrior who embodied the will of the global working class, and an implacable enemy of exploiters and fascists everywhere.
It’s easy to see how such an image would be attractive, especially in difficult political and economic times. People want heroes, and they’ll ignore any number of inconvenient facts to preserve a narrative they find satisfying. In the wake of Stalin’s death in 1953, the floodgates of state censorship opened, and a seemingly endless series of atrocity stories came out—but some socialists, both in the USSR and the West, simply refused to believe them, as Vivian Gornick recounts in The Romance of American Communism:
My mother was desperately confused. My aunt remained adamantly Stalinist. Night after night we quarreled violently.
“Lies!” I screamed at my aunt. “Lies and treachery and murder. A maniac has been sitting there in Moscow! A maniac has been sitting there in the name of socialism. In the name of socialism!” […]
“A Red-baiter!” my aunt yelled back. “A lousy little Red-baiter you’ve become! Louie Gornick must be turning over in his grave, that his daughter has become a Red-baiter!”
Others believed the accounts of torture and repression, but found ways to rationalize them, as Norman Finkelstein ruefully recalls in his essay “Misadventures in the Class Struggle”:
In my mind I was able to adduce a thousand justifications: some more, some less plausible, one often contradicting the other, each containing a morsel of truth, but, although not wrong, none—when I look back—finally adequate. I could facilely draw on an arsenal of clichés: “Revolution is not a dinner party” (Mao), “Revolutions are not pink teas” (Rosa Luxemburg), or the old Bolshevik standbys, “To make an omelette, you have to break eggs,” and “When you fell a tree, chips will fly.” If on occasion I found myself inwardly unnerved by the bloody horrors, I imagined that it was because I was too faint of heart, lacking the requisite ruthlessness to be a true revolutionary.
These are, broadly speaking, the two rationales used by Stalin’s defenders today. Either the murderous nature of his regime was completely fabricated (the theme of Grover Furr’s signature book Khrushchev Lied), or the noble goal of revolution justified the “requisite ruthlessness” along the way. Mix and match as needed.
It doesn’t help, of course, that Stalin’s most prominent critics today actually are “red-baiters” who cynically use his crimes as a cudgel against socialism in general. Consider our old friend Ben Shapiro, who immediately jumped to condemn Dr. Bair’s pro-Stalin comments, insisting that Stalin was “a mass murderer responsible for the death of tens of millions of human beings.” (Notably, Shapiro supported the invasion of Iraq and continues to support the ethnic cleansing of Palestine, so it’s not like he objects to mass murder as such.) Then there’s Jordan Peterson, who cites Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago as a formative influence for his own hatred of “radical leftists.” (He leaves out the bit where Solzhenitsyn was a none-too-subtle antisemite who wanted Jews to accept “their own share of sin” for their supposed “disproportionate role” in the Soviet government.) In the media, any reasonably prominent socialist can expect to get accused of being a potential Stalin. This guilt-by-association was the root of commentator Chris Matthews’ public meltdown during the 2020 presidential primaries, when he speculated that a Bernie Sanders victory would lead to “executions in Central Park,” and of Boris Johnson’s rhetoric in the 2019 U.K. elections, when he accused Jeremy Corbyn of persecuting the rich “with a relish and a vindictiveness not seen since Stalin.” These are obviously absurd smear attempts, so it’s tempting to imagine that the basic concept of Stalin-as-evil is equally groundless—and further, that he might even have been a misunderstood hero if right-wing ideologues hate him so much.
Then, too, it’s important to give the devil his due. Stalin had his strengths, and he knew how to use them. While Hitler is usually recognized for his rhetorical skill and ability to sway a crowd, Stalin could be just as eloquent, if not more so. When he criticized the capitalist West, as he did in a 1936 interview with the American journalist Roy Howard, his points struck home:
It is difficult for me to imagine what “personal liberty” is enjoyed by an unemployed person, who goes about hungry, and cannot find employment. Real liberty can exist only where exploitation has been abolished, where there is no oppression of some by others, where there is no unemployment and poverty, where a man is not haunted by the fear of being tomorrow deprived of work, of home and of bread. Only in such a society is real, and not paper, personal and every other liberty possible.
All this is perfectly true, and beautifully stated. Predictably enough, the quote still circulates as a meme today. It’s not the only rhetorical victory for Stalinism, either. In the ongoing rivalry between the two powers, Stalin and his propagandists never missed a chance to slam the United States for its record on racial injustice, deploying the bitter phrase “А у вас негров линчуют” (“And you are lynching Negroes!”) whenever American diplomats criticized the USSR’s human rights abuses. This was, of course, a cynical ploy, but it had positive consequences. After being publicly shamed in forums like the United Nations, some postwar American leaders felt pressured to support the Civil Rights movement “out of a desire to promote a positive image of America abroad, particularly in the contest for support in developing and decolonized countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America—principal proxy arenas for the Cold War.” (This much is, nowadays, admitted on official government websites.) As interventions in world history go, that’s not a small thing, and Stalin’s government won the support of several prominent African American thinkers and activists, including Langston Hughes (who poignantly noted1 that “In the Soviet Union, dark men are also mayors of cities”), Paul Robeson (who visited the USSR in 1934 and said that “Here, I am not a Negro but a human being for the first time in my life”), and even a late-career W.E.B. Du Bois. Could these three men, each a genius in his own field, have been so completely wrong?
Well, yes. Sadly, they could. To an extent, they had good reason for being taken in—the extent of Soviet repression wasn’t yet well known, and when people like Hughes and Robeson toured the USSR, they were shown a carefully curated version that showcased only the best elements. (For the same reason, dignitaries visiting the U.S. do not see Rikers Island.) The Stalinists of the 20th century desperately wanted to believe in the promise of a new society, and they weren’t given the facts they needed to see through the illusion. In the 21st century, though, we have no such excuse. There is ample evidence from dozens of different sources detailing Stalin’s abuses and betrayals, and it has become impossible to view his time in power with any kind of admiration or nostalgia. Instead, it’s vital for today’s leftists to face the truth, horrible as it is, and avoid falling into the same old patterns of self-deception.
Stalin was worse than a “flawed” or “corrupted” communist. Rather—with the single exception of Hitler—he was the most lethal anticommunist of his time. In fact, the epitaph of virtually every prominent European socialist to die in the years 1928-1945 reads either “murdered by Hitler” or “murdered by Stalin.” Soon after he was named General Secretary of the Communist Party in 1922, Stalin began maneuvering against the other Bolshevik leaders who had organized the October Revolution, packing important positions with his own supporters and arranging various smears and frame-ups against his rivals. Leon Trotsky, the leader of the Left Opposition faction, was ejected from the Party in 1927 after he refused to abandon the idea of global revolution (which Stalin opposed); by 1929 he had been exiled from the USSR altogether, and in 1940 Stalin had him assassinated. Grigory Zinoviev and Lev Kamenev, close associates of Lenin who were originally supposed to rule with Stalin in a triumvirate, were accused of the murder of Sergei Kirov (for which some historians believe Stalin was also responsible) and summarily executed in 1936. With each year, the accusations of treachery grew wilder, and the evidence more thin, often relying entirely on confessions extracted under torture. Solidarity between comrades vanished overnight, replaced by paranoia and palace intrigue. Trials became farces lasting as little as 15 or 20 minutes. Nikolai Bukharin, leader of the moderate Right Opposition, managed to survive until 1938, but in the end he, too, was sentenced to death for his supposed involvement in a Trotskyist and/or Nazi conspiracy; with his passing, there ceased to be any significant Opposition at all. (Bukharin’s last message2 is particularly haunting, using Stalin’s personal nickname in an appeal to their onetime friendship: Koba, why do you need me to die?) In the same year, Jānis Rudzutaks, a Latvian revolutionary who had served ten years in Tsarist prisons for his Bolshevik convictions, was executed despite never having voiced the slightest objection to the Party line. His only offense,3 according to Stalin’s confidante Vyacheslav Molotov, was that he was “too easygoing about the opposition” and “indulged too much in partying with philistine friends,” and was therefore a liability. No one was safe.
The list goes on forever, and these are only the most famous names. In March of 1938, the American Marxist newspaper Socialist Appeal ran a memorable photo gallery, entitled “LENIN’S GENERAL STAFF OF 1917: STALIN, THE EXECUTIONER, ALONE REMAINS.” As it turns out, they were slightly off; of the 24 people pictured, Alexandra Kollontai and Matvei Muranov, listed as “missing,” had survived. Still, this gives some sense of the bloody ruin Stalin made of the Bolshevik party. (With characteristic chutzpah, Grover Furr attempts to justify the purges in Khrushchev Lied, asserting that all of the above really were spies and saboteurs, but the numbers are against him. What are the odds, after all, that essentially everyone but Stalin suddenly turned traitor, leaving him the only stalwart?)
With each new show trial, a ripple effect ran through Soviet society, as anyone who was tainted by association with the “guilty” party—from their family members, to people who were merely seen talking to them or reading their books—stood a decent chance of being arrested, executed, or deported to Siberia in turn. Like American cops today, Stalin’s secret police worked on a quota system, in which officers were required to make a certain number of arrests per month; when the mandated number of “conspirators” couldn’t be found, they were invented, lest the officers themselves be purged for their failure. In a typical case, one unlucky woman was arrested as a Trotskyist, then had her charge changed to “bourgeois nationalism,” on the grounds that the local NKVD had “exceeded4 the quota for Trotskyites, but were short on nationalists, even though they’d taken all the Tatar writers they could think of.” Later, others fell victim to the sadism of Lavrentiy Beria, a truly vile figure who used his position as head of the secret police to sexually assault hundreds of women and girls, often threatening a loved one under arrest to secure their silence. (When this method didn’t work, Beria simply murdered his victims; in 1993, workers digging a ditch at his former home found several sets of human remains that had been hastily covered up with quicklime.)
One of the standard features of Stalinist apologetics, past and present, is to quibble over the precise number of the dead. Western scholarship, says Michael Parenti in Blackshirts and Reds, offers “inflated numbers” which “serve neither historical truth nor the cause of justice but merely help to reinforce a knee-jerk fear and loathing of those terrible Reds.” It couldn’t possibly be 20 million victims (Robert Conquest, The Great Terror) or 30-40 million (Anton Antonov-Ovseyenko, The Time of Stalin); these estimates are packed with all sorts of extraneous deaths that Stalin wasn’t directly responsible for. So the argument goes—but it misses the point completely. Even if we grant the most pro-Stalin interpretation of the facts, counting only the deaths directly recorded in the Soviet archives (799,455 executions, 1.7 million deaths while imprisoned, 390,000 during the forced resettlement of rural peasants, and 400,000 people deported to Siberia and elsewhere), we still get a figure of more than three million. Some of these, doubtless, were actually guilty of something, including Nazi sympathizers and fifth columnists. Still, no crime justifies a slow, agonizing death by frostbite or starvation in the Gulag. This is practically the definition of “cruel and unusual.” Even at the time, socialists were among the most vocal opponents of capital punishment as an institution, and Stalin’s haphazard death-dealing shows exactly why. Even one life wrongfully taken in the name of socialism would be an appalling tragedy. Three million is a horror almost too vast to contemplate.
Along with the death of citizens came the death of ideals. Under Stalin’s leadership, many of the hard-won victories of 1917 were undermined and rolled back, in a downward slide into social and political conservatism. As Leon Sedov, son of the exiled Trotsky, noted mournfully in 1936:
In the most diverse areas, the heritage of the October revolution is being liquidated. Revolutionary internationalism gives way to the cult of the fatherland in the strictest sense. And the fatherland means, above all, the authorities. Ranks, decorations and titles have been reintroduced. The officer caste headed by the marshals has been reestablished. The old communist workers are pushed into the background; the working class is divided into different layers. […] The old petit-bourgeois family is being reestablished and idealized in the most middle-class way; despite the general protestations, abortions are prohibited, which, given the difficult material conditions and the primitive state of culture and hygiene, means the enslavement of women, that is, the return to pre-October times.
There are layers of irony to this passage. Trotsky himself, after all, had been instrumental in putting down the 1921 Kronstadt sailors’ uprising, so it’s a bit rich for his heirs to decry the return of military hierarchy. But if anything, Sedov is understating his case. More than being “divided into different layers,” the working class found itself increasingly micromanaged and exploited under Stalin. As Sheila Fitzpatrick details in her meticulous book Everyday Stalinism, new labor-discipline laws introduced in 1938 and 1940 made it a criminal offense to be more than 20 minutes late to work, punishable by dismissal at minimum and sometimes actual imprisonment. The hated “domestic passports” used by the Tsars were reintroduced, forcing workers to show their “papers” to police at a moment’s notice, and justify why they were in a given area. If they couldn’t, this too could lead to arrest and prison time. The government even resorted to strikebreaking and the suppression of labor power, arresting workers en masse in the cotton-mill town of Teikovo when they organized a short-lived strike against food rationing. Bolshevism had offered a promise of total liberation for working people, but now, Stalinism delivered the opposite. In place of a “dictatorship of the proletariat,” there was only a dictatorship of the police and prisons over the proletariat, with men like Beria as the cops-in-chief.
The point about “revolutionary internationalism,” too, deserves a closer look. At first glance, this might seem like an arcane Trotskyist grievance, but the consequences for people around the world were very real. To the extent that he believed in anything, Stalin was a firm believer in “socialism in one country”—that is, the idea that the Soviet Union should focus on its own industrial development, compete with the West on that basis, and remain detached from any form of global class struggle. The old slogan “workers of the world, unite!” was abandoned, and the Soviet state became either indifferent or actively hostile to the efforts of socialist movements in other countries, even as those movements looked to it for support and guidance. In the Spanish Civil War, for example, the USSR lent a limited amount of military aid to the Republican forces battling Francisco Franco. But at the same time, Stalin dictated the policy line of the Spanish Communist Party (Partido Comunista de España, or PCE), which was fiercely loyal to Moscow, and through this mouthpiece, he made it painfully clear that there would be no workers’ revolution as a result of the war. Instead, the PCE mandated a “united front” with a so-called “progressive bourgeoisie”—in other words, any part of the ruling class that wasn’t actively fascist—dismantled the self-governing workers’ councils that had sprung up in the early days of the war, and declared that “any seizure of property by the workers is only a temporary measure in the interests of defence,” with capitalist ownership to return as soon as possible. Understandably, many Spanish communists refused to follow these high-handed orders, especially in the POUM (Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista, or Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification—the other, non-Stalinist communist party in the mix). So the Stalinists pressured the Republican government to declare the POUM an illegal organization, causing open conflict between the two factions. As Jesús Hernández, a high-ranking member of the PCE, recalls in his memoirs, POUM founder Andreu Nin was captured by agents of Stalin’s NKVD, who tried to make him confess to being a fascist traitor:
Nin did not capitulate. He resisted, to their dismay. His torturers grew impatient. They decided to abandon the ‘dry’ method. Now came the living blood, the rended flesh, the twisted muscles, which would put to the test the man’s integrity and capacity for physical resistance. Nin bore up under the cruelty of the torment and the pain of refined torture. At the end of a few days his human shape had been turned into a formless mass of swollen flesh. Orlov, in a frenzy, crazed by the fear of failure—a failure which could mean his own liquidation—slavered over with rage against this sick man who agonised without ‘confessing,’ without implicating himself or seeking to implicate his party comrades who, at a single word from him, would have been stood up against the wall for execution, to the joy and heart-felt satisfaction of all the Russians.
Nin never did give his tormentors what they wanted, and his courage and endurance only brings their betrayal of the most basic socialist principles into sharp relief. Still, the damage was already done. The fratricidal infighting between POUM and PCE drove a wedge through the Republican alliance as a whole, weakening its forces even as Franco gained in strength, and by 1939, the war was lost. Far from securing a united front, Stalin’s meddling had snuffed out any hope of resistance, and Spanish fascism reigned supreme.
This hostility to revolutionary movements abroad didn’t end with Spain, either. In his own memoirs, Yugoslavian diplomat Milovan Djilas recalls how Stalin’s USSR was strangely reluctant to acknowledge the ambitions of his country’s socialist partisans, who were fighting a war on two fronts—both against Nazi invasion, and to overthrow their monarchy:
Though nobody, not even the Yugoslav Communists, spoke of revolution, it was long since obvious that it was going on. In the West they were already writing a great deal about it. In Moscow, however, they obdurately refused to recognize it—even those who had, so to speak, every reason to do so. Everyone stubbornly talked only about the struggle against the German invaders, and even more stubbornly stressed exclusively the patriotic nature of that struggle.
There could be any number of reasons for this stance, from Stalin’s distrust of internationalism in general to a desire to avoid angering the Allies by stirring up revolutionary fervor in Eastern Europe. Whatever the cause, relations between the two camps remained frosty, and it took until 1945 for Yugoslavia to actually become a socialist nation—a much longer and bloodier struggle than it might have been.
Even after the conclusion of WWII, this standoffishness remained a consistent pattern. When Greek communists begged Stalin for help in their own civil war, their pleas fell on deaf ears. Stalin, it turned out, had promised to stay out of Greece and Turkey in a backroom deal he made with Churchill, in exchange for greater influence over the Balkans—and he valued his word to an arch-imperialist more than the lives of the Greek partisans. Across the ocean, Harry Truman had no such qualms, and supplied the Greek far right with both military advisors and napalm. The revolution burned to ash.
All this would be bad enough, but it’s not the end. We’d be remiss, in this brief tour of Hell, not to stop and consider Stalin’s homophobia, and the bitter discrimination his government unleashed against gay men in particular. Unlike some of the more famous crimes, there’s no possible strategic reason behind this one; it’s purely a matter of ignorance and bigotry. With its penal code of 1922, the USSR had become one of the first nations on Earth (after revolutionary France and its imitators) to decriminalize homosexuality, and homophobia—although it obviously still existed—had begun to fade into the margins, viewed as part of the same feudal “backwardness” and conservatism that characterized the old Tsarist regime. The Bolshevik party had its share of gay officials, such as Georgy Chicherin, who served as People’s Commissar for Foreign Affairs from 1918 to 1930, and openly gay writers and artists like Mikhail Kuzmin were highly respected in early Soviet cultural circles. (Kuzmin himself, incidentally, is one of the great forgotten figures of world literature; among other things, his novel Wings is the first widely-published work to depict a “coming out” scene.)
With Stalin, all this changed. In 1933, secret police deputy chief Genrikh Yagoda wrote to Stalin claiming that homosexuality had “politically demoralized various social layers of young men, including young workers,” and that gay men were likely to be spies and traitors meeting in conspiratorial “circles.” Stalin agreed, and replied that “these scoundrels must receive exemplary punishment.” The following year, a new article5 was added to the penal code, dictating that “sexual relations of a man with a man (pederasty) shall be punished by deprivation of freedom for a term of up to five years,” and police raids on the homes of well-known gay men became commonplace. (Like Victorian England, the state made no mention of lesbians, apparently reluctant to acknowledge they existed.) When the Scottish Marxist Harry Whyte, then working for the Moscow Daily News, wrote his own impassioned letter to Stalin defending gay rights, Stalin’s answer was blunt, scrawled across the letter in pencil: “An idiot and a degenerate.” (To the archives the letter went.) The homophobic law remained on the books until 1993, and it decimated the Soviet LGBT community, sending thousands to the Gulag—where they were ostracized, labeled with various slurs, and routinely abused and assaulted by both the guards and their fellow prisoners. With a few strokes of a pen, the Soviet Union’s brief window of sexual and gender liberation had been savagely slammed shut.
In its place, Stalin favored a stifling heteronormativity that revolved around the glorification of reproduction, motherhood, and traditional gender roles. Like his homophobia, this was deeply at odds with revolutionary Bolshevik ideals—the Russian Revolution, it is often forgotten, began as a women’s march, and throughout its early years figures like Alexandra Kollontai and Nadezhda Krupskaya had held independent political sway within the Party. Now, though, women were told that—although “the Soviet woman is a full and equal citizen of her country”—the important thing was that “our state has simultaneously ensured all the conditions necessary for her to fulfil[l] her natural obligation—that of being a mother bringing up her children and mistress of her home.”(Ironically, the editorial in question was written by Kollontai herself; it’s not clear whether she simply grew more conservative with age, or was coerced into following the Party line.) To encourage this “natural obligation,” the state issued paid maternity leave and cash allowances for childcare supplies. There were even special government medals for women who had multiple children, placing motherhood on an equal footing with military service as a priority of Soviet society—and tacitly discouraging other ambitions.
In today’s capitalist world, where increasing numbers of young people simply can’t afford to have children and are pressured to return immediately to work when they do, some of this might sound genuinely nice. But Stalin was less concerned with helping women or children as such, and more with replacing the devastating loss of population the USSR had suffered in the first World War (to say nothing of his own purges and manufactured famines). Women’s bodies were simply a means to an end, and the Soviet state took coercive power over them by outlawing abortion in June 1936. As usual, solidarity between women made this unenforceable, but the resulting black market was both expensive and unsafe, relying on babki (midwives) who often worked in cramped and unsanitary conditions. Anyone who helped to end a pregnancy could be sentenced to two years in prison, and police were merciless in pursuing this “crime,” as one woman of the time recalls6:
It was terrible, absolutely terrible. So many women died, leaving small children, and so many were sent to prison. Women who had the abortions and suffered were sent to prison, and those who performed the abortions were also sent to prison. We were interrogated. I remember how after I had had the abortion I was lying there, weak from the loss of blood, and they kept questioning me, Who performed it, who performed it? And I was so weak, yet how could I send a person whom I had personally asked to perform the abortion to prison? […] I felt so awful that on my way home I crept under the railroad platform and thought, I’ll just lie here and die. And to think that two children were waiting for me at home!
This, to put it mildly, does not sound like the actions of any socialist state worthy of the name. Instead, it sounds like something Ted Cruz or Ron DeSantis would do if you gave them unlimited power. One starts to suspect there’s a reason most of the Stalinists you encounter today are straight men; certainly you can’t call yourself any sort of feminist and defend policies like this.
Even art wasn’t safe. In its early years, the Soviet Union had seen an unprecedented flowering of avant-garde and experimental art, in keeping with the idea that a radically new society would express itself in radically new ways. Artists like Pavel Filonov—who was also chairman of the Revolutionary War Committee in the Dunay region—invented entirely new schools of painting, while others enthusiastically adopted European movements like Cubism and Futurism and pushed them to new heights. Authors like Isaac Babel, Mikhail Bulgakov, and Yevgeny Zamyatin wrote some of their most important works in the 1920s. Science fiction imagined a dizzying array of possible futures, and Soviet artists took to the new medium of film to depict them. But these currents existed in an uneasy tension with “socialist realism,” the brainchild of Anatoly Lunacharsky—a Bolshevik commissar who believed that art should be used for didactic purposes, to depict “ideal” workers and communities and instruct people in how they ought to be living their lives. When Stalin took power, he favored this more authoritarian take on art and put strict new restrictions on both the styles that could be used and the content that could be depicted. Non-representational art came to be viewed as “decadent” (just as it was “degenerate” to the Nazis), and it was usually forbidden to display it. Instead, public space became an endless gallery of kitsch, with propaganda posters showing muscular Soviet workmen hammering rocks, driving tractors, and gazing sternly into the distance. Predictably, many of the posters were tacky heroic portraits of Stalin himself: Stalin marching with happy workers, Stalin holding a baby, Stalin steering a big boat marked “CCCP.”
If any artist refused to work in socialist realism, or wanted to use a different style, their work as a whole could be banned; this happened to Filonov, who lived in grinding poverty until his death in 1941. In some cases, artists who annoyed Stalin were even framed and executed in the same way as his political rivals, as with the poet Titsian Tabidze—a close friend of Boris Pasternak, who barely escaped execution himself. In yet another area of life, freedom, playfulness, and exploration had been replaced with grim conformity and fear, and these would be the aesthetic markers that defined the USSR in the eyes of the world.
What about World War II, though? Surely that’s Stalin’s ace in the hole—that no matter how many people he purged, how many socialist movements he wrecked, or how much of a bigot and philistine he was personally, his “tough decisions” were the crucial factor that won the war. Stalinist authors like Furr and Ludo Martens devote many pages to the war years, and there is one thing they’re right about: the Soviet Union, more than any other geopolitical group, was responsible for breaking the back of Nazi Germany, and destroying Hitler’s empire of madness and death. The images of Red Army soldiers throwing open the gates of Auschwitz will live in human history forever, and at Stalingrad alone, more than a million of them gave their lives—more than the U.S. lost in the entire war. But crucially, these are not Stalin’s victories, nor his sacrifices. He, like Churchill and Roosevelt, was sitting safely behind his desk when the real heroism happened. To credit him with “winning the war” or “defeating Nazism,” as if he personally parachuted into Berlin with a belt of grenades and started blowing up bunkers, is to erase the collective struggle of millions, and to surrender to the deeply conservative “great man” theory of history. Supposed Marxists should know better.
Apart from this, there’s evidence that Stalin and his paranoia actively harmed the Soviet war effort. Because Trotsky had been the original architect of the Red Army, Stalin always viewed its officer corps with deep suspicion and carried out extensive purges in the years 1937-8 just as he had within the Bolshevik Party itself. “Three of the five marshalls, thirteen of the fifteen army commanders, and eight of the nine fleet admirals” were executed, according to one account, together with more than 40,000 men who were dismissed from their posts for various small infractions and accusations of disloyalty. A particularly consequential loss was Marshal Mikhail Tukhachevsky, a military genius who had done more than anyone to modernize the Soviet armed forces, introducing revolutionary tank and aircraft tactics that earned him the title “the Red Napoleon.” For his troubles Tukhachevsky was, like so many, tortured into a false confession of treason and shot. (The confession, on file in Moscow today, still has visible bloodstains on it.)
These purges left an enormous talent vacuum at the top, which the USSR’s enemies could hardly fail to notice. At the time, General Konstantin Rokossovsky—who was imprisoned for two years, but survived and became a military hero during WWII—said that “this is worse than when artillery fires on its own troops,” and at the Nuremberg Trials, Wehrmacht field marshal Wilhelm Keitel testified that Hitler’s decision to invade the USSR was based partly on his belief that “the first-class high-ranking officers were wiped out by Stalin in 1937, and the new generation cannot yet provide the brains they need.” So not only did Stalin’s “tough decisions” not win the war, but they actually played a part in getting his country attacked and leaving it with a limited capacity to fight back.
Certainly today’s Nazis aren’t worried about Stalinism as a potential threat. Just the opposite, in fact. In Stalin: The Enduring Legacy, Kerry Bolton—a New Zealand white supremacist and frequent contributor to the “books you can’t read on the bus” subgenre, whose other works include The Holocaust Myth and Mel Gibson and the Pharisees—praises Stalin for “reversing the Bolshevik-Marxist psychosis that would have reduced Russia to chaos and destroyed the very soul of the Russian people,” and hails Stalinism as “a major force for tradition and conservatism in the world, against globalization.” Minus the “psychosis” bit, he’s exactly right. The diagnosis neatly follows that of Konstantin Rodzaevsky, the leader-in-exile of the Russian Fascist Party, who remarked7) shortly before his death in 1946 that “Stalinism is exactly what we mistakenly called ‘Russian Fascism.’ It is our Russian Fascism cleansed of extremes, illusions, and errors.” In other words, the two were more alike than they were different. Heavy on quotes like these, all Bolton’s book really does is to document different aspects of the USSR’s rightward drift under Stalin—he’s especially fond of the abortion ban—and then smugly assert that they were actually good things. For the avowed Stalinists of today’s left, is this not concerning?
“[…]the Reign of Terror. We think of this as the reign of people who inspire terror; on the contrary, it is the reign of people who are themselves terrified. Terror consists mostly of useless cruelties perpetrated by frightened people in order to reassure themselves.”
So says Engels to Marx in 1870. He was talking about the French Revolution and its aftermath, but he might as well have been looking through a time-warp at Josef Stalin. Rather than the “strength” that his devotees imagine, Stalin offered the world nothing but weakness: constantly jumping at imaginary threats, alienating potential allies, and dividing the working class against itself. If the Soviet Union accomplished anything, it was because extraordinarily brave people kept working in spite of him. Stalinism is nationalistic, homophobic, sexist, and often downright stupid; today, it’s wholly backward-looking, seeking to restore the imagined glories of 1945 rather than create something new. A “strong” movement does not need to arrest poets for using a different style to the approved one. For anyone skeptical of the police or prisons, the idea that it even could is monstrous. Thankfully, it’s still fairly rare to find someone who idolizes the man himself, but aspects of the Stalinist idea keep popping up—in defenses of dictators like Vladimir Putin and Bashar al-Assad as opponents of “imperialism,” in disdain for feminism and LGBTQ rights as distractions, and in the attitude that anything is justified if it leads to power. All of this is a poisonous dead end for the left, and the question “how can we be sure you won’t create another Stalin?” is a serious one for future parties and movements to address. The working people of the world have no need for a Man of Steel; they’re already more than capable of leading themselves.
“A Negro Looks at Soviet Central Asia,” 1934 edition, p. 8 ↩
Roy and Zhores Medvedev, The Unknown Stalin, 2006, p. 296. Other sources translate the line as “why did you need my death?” or “why is my death necessary for you?” ↩
“Molotov Remembers,” ed. Felix Chuev, 1993, p. 272-74 ↩
Conquest, “The Great Terror” p. 312 ↩
Article 121 – in “Basic Documents on the Soviet Legal System,” ed. William Butler, p. 344. ↩
“A Revolution of Their Own,” ed. Barbara Alpern Engel, 1998, p. 33 ↩
Quoted in Bolton, p. 6 ↩