Kotkin’s Stalin: Prospects and Perils.


by Pabian Micek

All rights reserved to the author.

Those with more nuanced perspectives on the Soviet experience often have not
considered it worthy of their time to breakdown and critique the unbelievable myriad of
bourgeois media hit­jobs regarding Joseph Stalin, the “biography of a monster” has
become a veritable genre unto its own which has two historic trends: The tendency to
further and further emphasize Stalin’s personality and character to explain what
transpired, and to exponentially increase the number of alleged victims with every
account. The pseudo­psychoanalytic angle of attributing Stalin’s alleged brutality to
early childhood trauma is a compelling narrative angle, not because it is actually
particularly insightful, but because it syncs nicely with a market that demands stories of
monsters that defy all reason and hold nothing sacred, of brutality that fits into a mold
that had historically been designed only for the Nazis­­ a mold that now seems suitable
to any modernist project that proposed an alternative to liberal society.
Within these conditions, those scholars who fall outside of the increasingly
homogeneous ideological paradigm of Soviet scholarship are delighted to finally have
an English language biography of Stalin that imposes somewhat of a reality check on a
field that has bloomed into the absurdity of books like Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands,
wherein the trend of replacing scholarly merit with slander, anti­communist popular
sentiment and sensationalist marketability mushrooms. This comparison is apt as
Kotkin’s book hardly remains focused on Stalin himself, but expertly constructs its
narrative among historical and political conditions with a breadth of resources and detail
any socialist historian would envy… yet there are deep problems with Kotkin’s book that
extend beyond those we might presume of liberal scholar writing on the person who has
come to symbolize the most profound threat to liberal democracy in the 20th century.
I thought it would be prudent to run through some of the political lessons we as
Marxist­Leninists can derive from Kotkin’s book, as well as point the serious issues at
stake that many leftist commentators tend to gloss over.

The Good.

Kotkin’s book has been hailed by some on the left as it shows that “the
communists were communists, and Trotskyism is delusional.” The depth of
contemporary reaction has created a situation where even pointing to the fact that Stalin
was a Marxist at all (at least as he understood it) is a step forward, and Kotkin’s
evidence and arguments are certainly compelling in this regard. Numerous liberal
figures have attempted to posit that Stalin (and often even Lenin) were simply power
hungry individuals who took advantage of turbulent times in order to rise through the
ranks and achieve elite status. Kotkin disproves this throughout the entire book, citing
Stalin’s continual dedication to Marxism, the way he placed ideology above all even in
conditions wherein it was to his detriment, his humble style of living even upon
assuming power, in how significantly his methods departed from other dictatorships
where it is clear that a the leader figure utilized his position for personal gain, etc. In this
regard he contends with Trotskyite rhetoric that pushes the line that Stalin’s
opportunism had diverted the USSR from the “true socialist path”, and more significantly
(and unfairly) away from Marxism as practiced by Lenin.
Unlike nearly every other bourgeois biographer and historian, Kotkin understands
something of Marxist Ideology. He points to the fact that ultimately Stalin was an
internationalist, and the criticisms of “socialism in one country” miss the significant factor
that this position was only intended to safeguard the revolution while awaiting capitalist
economic fall­out (as occurred in 1929 right on schedule) and/or inter­capitalist war as a
result of imperialist rivalry (as occurred during the Second World War, resulting in the
significant expansion of Socialist countries). Kotkin goes into impressive detail about the
issues surrounding questions regarding national determination, the sharpening of class
struggle after the creation of a socialist state, the block of classes theory in the
developing world… essentially all of the relevant Marxist ideological questions
necessary for understanding the turbulent history of Bolshevism.
Kotkin paints a full and fair account of Trotsky that many Marxist­Leninists could
benefit from, showing his strength as an orator, his merits (and flaws) as commander of
the red army, his popularity among certain segments of youth and students within the
Soviet Union… and most importantly the absurdity of the idea that Trotsky had the
capacity to unify and lead the Soviet Union in Stalin’s stead­­ and furthermore that he
would have attempted to take a significantly different direction than Stalin, had he such
an opportunity. Many who have read Trotsky’s denunciation of Stalinism in The
Revolution Betrayed and presumed him to be the figure dedicated to a democratic
version of socialism would be surprised to read his writings on terror during the civil war
period which look remarkably similar to what they criticize in Stalin’s later tactics. For
instance, statements such as: “The dictatorship of the proletariat is expressed in the
abolition of private property in the means of production, not in workers control over
industry or other participatory forms of decision making.” (My emphasis) are a far cry
from the Trotsky we think we know. Trotsky’s later critiques when put in context become
clear products of his waning power within the structure of Soviet power, solidified via
numerous political defeats at party congresses throughout the years.
Kotkin also manages to thoroughly disperse the mythology surrounding Lenin’s
“final testament”, pointing not only to the trouble of its authenticity (Lenin was nearly an
invalid at the time of its alleged composition, and it was sent out missing authentication
via signature and stamp as Lenin’s other documents had been) but also to its reception,
(on the assumption it was authentic). Kotkin uses the transcripts of the congresses to
show how the document was discussed in detail and even openly published after
awhile. Stalin even attempted to follow the directives of the “testament” several times by
resigning, for which he was unanimously compelled to remain at his post… unanimously
meaning that even Trotsky voted for him to remain as general secretary. Not to mention
that Lenin had actually created the general secretary position for Stalin, who visited him
regularly during his dying days (Trotsky would not visit a single time, and would not
even attend the funeral). The “testament” has had its days in the sun, and it is perhaps
times for Trotskyites to find some more substantive criticisms.
Outside of resolving some of this inter­leftist squabbling about succession (as if
Lenin solely decided the question rather than the congress who elected Stalin by a wide
margin­­ and this before the period his opponents would claim signal his consolidation
of power) Kotkin signals that Stalin’s leadership was essential to the survival of the
nascent Soviet state: “Ultimately , the principal alternative to Stalin was the willing
abandonment or unwilling unhinging of the Bolshevik regime.” (Kotkin, 732) He
emphasizes Stalin’s remarkable political ability, commitment to Marxist ideology and
desire to create an independent socialist state at all costs. Kotkin rightfully criticizes
Stalin on some of the mistakes he did make, such as occasionally problematic
comintern policy in China and poor strategy/brutality in the Southern border states.

The Bad

Kotkin is a painfully unapologetic liberal. Most of his explicitly liberal declarations
come as proclamations near the end, he presumes his audience will take these
statements as self­evident. Some of these statements profoundly embarrassing: “To be
sure, socioeconomic class was (and remains) undeniable [what a concession!]. But the
construction of a political order on the basis of class, rather than common humanity and
individual liberty, was (and always will be) ruinous.” (Kotkin, 737) I hardly need to take
this sentence apart for anyone with even a basic understanding of how capitalism
actually functions, but suffice it to say that capitalism is undeniably a political order
based on class (which few would deny), and secondly historians should perhaps avoid
playing the fortune teller. His political points become almost parodies of libertarianism,
defending “the market” in the abstract and even stating that the kulak class could “help
to lift up others” in a kind of proto­capitalist agrarian version of trickle down economics.
This is not accidental, but endemic to Kotkin’s approach. His true reasoning for
disparaging Trotsky and showing that Stalin was a “real Marxist­Leninist” is to show that
socialism as an ideology is beyond saving regardless of who is at the helm. Where­as
many have attempted to save socialism from itself by creating alternative historical
fantasies, Kotkin soberly points to the success of the Soviet Union as the failure of
Marxist ideology. He describes Marxism as “nonsensical”, and ultimately to the
detriment of the budding Soviet government and even Stalin himself. Kotkin paints
foreign hostility to the USSR as a result of Soviet paranoia and essentially implies that
the imperialist nations would have been fine with their Soviet neighbor, had the USSR
not acted so belligerently (Kotkin, 444). This formula comes up time and time again, that
if the communists had not acted and believed in, you know, communism, they would
have been more successful at building a productive state. Kotkin is at a somewhat
paradoxical point here as he simultaneously recognizes that the Bolsheviks were
sincere in their ideological bent and in attempting to build Socialism, and yet cannot
seem to understand that the measure of “success” he is proposing as an alternative
would presume abandoning that goal. To follow Kotkin’s line of reasoning, one has to
already believe that liberalism is an eternal truth and Marxism an aberration, proving the
cliched adage that history is written by the victors. Capitalism’s global triumph is
essentially substituted as a claim for its validity, a position which capitalism’s
contemporary and historic crises significantly complicate.
Kotkin makes startling oversights that are none­the­less replete amongst
bourgeois scholars, such as drawing comparative economic statistics between late
Tsarist Russia and the early Soviet state, completely ignoring the somewhat
complicating factor that World War 1 had taken place between these two periods.
(Kotkin. 333) Ignoring the complications of the NEP period and the civil war, Kotkin
essentially suggests that economic disasters of the the 1920s were entirely the result of
Soviet policy, despite that the NEP period would perhaps be more indicative of the
problems associated with the allowance capitalism, even given its temporary and
strategic utilization.

Kotkin profoundly misinterprets and recasts various episodes of the 1920s. The
seventh chapter which compares the early Soviet government to a form of dadaism
could really use the hand of an art historian. The essential (and relatively
unsubstantiated) claim is that Bolshevism acted in a dada­esque fashion by making
ridiculous decrees like naming the unemployed Pestkowski as the new governor of the
central bank, and even describes the situation as “anarchic.” Yet within the same
chapter he points to the deliberate construction of the Bolshevik dictatorship, the fact
that the Bolsheviks efforts were plausible as they were operating within a decidedly
socialist landscape, and most significantly ignoring Bolshevism’s relationship to native
avant­garde movements such as Futurism which provide a far more substantial
template for exploring the relationship between utopian art movements and political
revolution. This relationship has been explored and substantiated in detail by numerous
scholars such as Gutkin and Clark. Kotkin’s complete lack of understanding regarding
contemporary Slavic studies is one of his biggest weakness throughout (a weakness
that I would argue is part of the insular nature of the contemporary history discipline.)
Kotkin relies on tired tropes that have unfortunately never been weeded out of historical
method, the most striking of which is the “great man” theory, but his reliance on this
stereotype is perhaps even more heinous than prejudicial.

The Ugly.

Despite considering a wide breadth of historical, ideological and economic detail
surrounding the figure of Stalin, Kotkin is unable to divorce himself from the most
profound limitation of liberal scholarship: the idea that great men with enough
determination are responsible for making history happen. Kotkin’s method is not limited
to Stalin himself, but poses Stolypin, Bismarck and Sergei Witte in the position of “what
if” Napoleons. His commitment to the idea that “alternatives to history are always
possible” is profoundly ahistorical and ideological. But Kotkin does not leave it here.

The ridiculous final coda includes what is as its essence fascist apologia, despite
the obligatory statement that “does not meant to uphold Italian fascism in any way as a
model.” (Kotkin, 725) Essentially the structure of the chapter points to the problems of
Socialism as a model, defends the market and shows how Mussolini was able to act as
an efficient dictator by following his prescribed method of allowing the “successful
people” to bring the country up. The conclusion of the book is that Stalin’s idiosyncratic
authoritarian methods allowed him to accomplish what he did not because of Marxism,
but because of his mastery of Marxist argumentation and rhetoric. Marxism is actually
shown as a detriment and almost the sole source of the degradation of Stalin’s
otherwise remarkable capabilities. “ ‘Stalin illustrates the thesis that circumstances
make the man, not the man the circumstances.’ Utterly and eternally wrong.” (Kotkin,
739) Essentially we are being given a version of realpolitik… it would be far too
generous to call it a version of right ­Hegelianism. It is is a reincarnation of “the will to
power,” the idea that history is made by a single person acting with impeccable
determination­­ an argument that starts to look more and more pro­fascist as the book
goes on.

While this has been quick and unsubstantive, I hope to have shown the danger in
promoting Kotkin’s book, despite that it might initially seem useful. Kotkin’s interview
with Slavoj Zizek has certainly placed it within the orbit of leftist considerations, and its
refreshingly complex and original qualities have made it stand out among a sea of
pathetic slander and mediocrity masquerading as scholarship. Yet Kotkin’s premise
never truly departs from the most fundamental presumptions of liberalism, and we can
expect to see the next volume on collectivization being a far more damning and
conventional portrayal. This volume seems more sympathetic primarily as it covers the
early years where­in Kotkin hints that Stalin was not yet the man he would become.
Marxist-­Leninists should of course utilize the provided resources he has compiled
(particularly regarding historic debates around Trotskyism), but should understand the
book as a slight improvement on a genre that has reached rock bottom.