How dangerous is Trumpism? Are people not more rational, long-term, than this, able to reject much of Trumpism once the leader is out of power and not setting the agenda? To get insight into such possibilities, we examine what transpired in the Soviet Union with the rise of Stalin.
I have just read Let History Judge by Roy Medvedev (1989, Columbia University Press). This book, translated from Russian, is a weighty tome: 903 pages, three full pounds! In it, the author exhaustively analyzes what occurred in the Soviet Union under the domination of Stalin, commencing in the late 1920s and extending to his death in 1953.
Medvedev demonstrates the falsity of many interpretations of Stalin’s rule: that he continued the building of socialism initiated by the Bolsheviks led by Lenin; that his actions were necessitated by objective conditions facing the new revolutionary society; that he was a great war-time leader; that he was surrounded by countless intrigues against socialist society that had to be destroyed by vigorously rooting out “enemies of the people,” etc.
Stalin was an incomparably brutal despot whose only interest was in safeguarding and expanding his own control of the Soviet state. He held “show trials” at which his political opponents were forced to plead guilty to imaginary conspiracies after being viciously tortured by his secret police and threatened with retribution against their family members.
By 1938, almost all of the “old Bolshevik” leaders of Lenin’s time had been killed. Stalin wiped out communist leaders at all levels, who might oppose him, even those who had served him loyally. He had huge populations, numbering in the hundreds of thousands, transported to slave labor camps in the harsh hinterland, where many of them died.
He wiped out much of the technical and cultural intelligentsia that had loyally served the Soviet state. In the years prior to Germany’s invasion of Russia in 1941, he also decimated most of the Army command apparatus (from almost all of the generals, down to the lowest levels). This ensured Germany’s initial battlefield success and the loss of millions of troops through encirclement. The account of Stalin’s criminal behavior in thwarting the development of socialism in the Soviet Union could go on and on.
Okay, Stalin was a horribly bad guy, one of the very worst in history, but what has that got to do with us and the struggle against Trumpism? What is of particular relevance for us is the effect that Stalin’s rule had on the people of the Soviet Union. The Soviet Communist Party was hegemonic, brooking no opposition while claiming to be ruling as the instrument of the working class.
It was supposed to be internally democratic, but in reality it was completely top-down, with lower bodies simply implementing directives from above. Cadres it was obvious were wrongly accused of imaginary crimes would sometimes plead guilty in order not to impeach the prestige of the Party. (Many others, of course, were forced to plead guilty after enduring severe torture.) This was the quintessence of a one-party state!
At the village level, for example, the head functionary (a Party member) would be given a quota of well-off peasants who were enemies of the state and therefore had to be shipped off to slave-labor camps. The functionary readily complied even while realizing that these people had done nothing against the Soviet state.
The head of a mining operation, for example, might be told of a vast conspiracy to sabotage output. He would then accuse his staff members, most of whom were thereupon shot or given ten-year sentences of hard labor. Not long after, the head himself would be arrested and shot. Throughout the country people made wildly false accusations against one another, usually to protect themselves, but often to rise economically by taking the newly vacant position.
Through all this carnage, the great majority of people had little information about what was going on except that provided by the Party. They believed in the existence of conspiracies that were claimed to exist everywhere and continued to support the government. Stalin was genuinely revered by most at the time of his death!
Dave Jette writes this bi-monthly column and has been involved with Works in Progress since its beginnings. His three books are available at www.lulu.com: A Reformulation of Dialectical Materialism, which incorporates feminist theory into a traditional Marxist framework; Beyond Classical Marxism, about socialism and how to bring it about in the US; and Looking Forward, mainly offering the columns that appear here over time.