Review by Peter Taaffe of Young Stalin by Simon Sebag Montefiore
"Lenin shot by Trotsky in drunken brawl". This was a headline, not from the gutter press but from a so-called 'quality' US capitalist newspaper in the immediate period after the 1917 October Revolution.
In the past there was a counterweight to the possessing classes' frenzy over the Russian Revolution. E.H. Carr, for instance, tried to be objective about the Russian Revolution. But following the collapse of Stalinism in 1989, a 'galaxy' of crude, capitalist 'historians' have had a field day.
Simon Sebag Montefiore's Young Stalin is the latest and undoubtedly one of the worst of its kind. Montefiore claims that "massive research and astonishing new evidence in archives from Moscow to Georgia cast an entirely different light on Stalin's role". And yet, the only thing that is 'startling' about this book is that there is very little new evidence but a lot of old falsehoods about Stalin.
Trotsky, in his masterful unfinished Stalin, explains clearly the details of Stalin's early life in a much clearer fashion. Montefiore seeks to counter this. He writes: "We have relied on Trotsky's unrecognisably prejudiced portrait for too long. The truth was different."
His task is twofold. To rehabilitate Stalin as a leading Bolshevik, "second only to Lenin", to enhance his qualities of "courage" and political farsightedness. On the other hand, to link Stalin's "gangsterism" to Lenin and genuine Marxism. He claims Stalin loved "pub crawls", was sexually licentious and, most ludicrously, suggests he was a more "convincing" orator than Trotsky.
He is, at least, egalitarian in dispensing the insults. Lenin was a "nobleman" - because his family partly came from the nobility in the past. Entirely unmentioned, of course, is the fact that the same "noble" Lenin had broken from his relatively privileged existence - as had Marx, Engels and Trotsky, as well as Rosa Luxemburg - and placed himself not just ideologically but also in his lifestyle on the conditions of the working class. No matter; Lenin was "bug-eyed" and a "bespectacled loon".
Trotsky, in his biography of Stalin, wrote: "I do not think that in all of human history anything could be found even remotely resembling the gigantic factory of lies which was organised by the Kremlin under the leadership of Stalin. And one of the principal purposes of this factory is to manufacture a new biography of Stalin... Some of these sources were fabricated by Stalin himself."
Stalin pressurised Abel Yanukidze in 1935 to re-write history, asserting that Stalin played a leading role in the Caucasus and particularly in Baku, where he allegedly founded the first Marxist organisation. But this organisation had been set up eight years before Stalin appeared on the scene. Ironically, Montefiore continues Stalin's falsifications in this book by repeating the tales of his early life.
The author also peppers his account of the young Stalin's development with highly personalised pseudo-psychoanalytical comments. He ascribes to Stalin in the manner of 'original sin', qualities in his early life that would inevitably turn him into what Bukharin later called a "Genghis Khan".
Montefiore's claim is to present Stalin's personal qualities as typical of Marxists at the time and since.
Yet the human personality has good and bad sides. Given the barbarism of capitalist society, there are - as the recent situation in the Balkans has demonstrated - under unfavourable historical circumstances those who may have the traits of a potential Hitler or a Stalin.
This does not mean to say they could become a Hitler or a Stalin in all situations. Stalin was not preordained to play the role that he did later. But his qualities, or lack of them, which existed when he first entered the revolutionary movement, did emerge when history took an unfortunate turn in the isolation of the Russian Revolution.
A Marxist, particularly a leader, requires special qualities of willpower and the determination to struggle against great odds; and a broad perspective. Stalin possessed the former in abundance. However, he lacked what others like Trotsky, Lenin and other leading Bolsheviks possessed, a broad understanding of perspectives, strategy and tactics.
Trotsky explained the positive role that Stalin played: his tenacity in the teeth of difficulties when others wavered or capitulated. For instance, he was the most insistent that Lenin, correctly, should go underground after the 'July Days' of 1917, because he would have been murdered. However, on all the major political and theoretical questions in the workers' movement, he was on the wrong side.
Montefiore ludicrously tries to emphasise his "crucial" role in the Russian revolution. However, he was attacked by Lenin, as was Kamenev, in the February revolution, for supporting a 'popular front' government at the time, a coalition of 'socialists' with the capitalists. He was, according to Sukhanov who was a Menshevik not a Bolshevik, a "grey blur" in the Russian Revolution.
Notwithstanding the weight of independent evidence to the contrary, Montefiore writes: "Historians habitually follow Trotsky's (totally prejudiced but superbly written) version of events in asserting that Stalin 'missed the revolution', but this does not stand up to scrutiny."
He mentions that Stalin was elected to the Military-Revolutionary Centre by the Bolshevik Central Committee before the October Revolution, which subsequently played no role in the revolution. However, he goes on to correctly point out: "Trotsky and Sverdlov held the first organisational meeting of the Military-Revolutionary Committee (MRC): it... had the advantage of operating under the aegis of the Soviet. This, not Stalin's centre, would be the uprising's headquarters: he was not a member."
So what 'crucial' role did Stalin play in what Marxists defend as the greatest single event in human history? He was a "grey blur". In the actual uprising and, generally, in great events involving the masses, Stalin was absent or quiescent.
Lenin to Stalin
The real purpose of Montefiore is spelt out in a footnote: "It is still widely believed that Stalinism was a distortion of Leninism. But this is contradicted by the fact that in the months after October they were inseparable... Stalinism was not a distortion but a development of Leninism."
It is not "widely believed" today that Stalinism departed from the ideas of Lenin; on the contrary, Montefiore has joined others in trying to prove that Leninism and Stalinism were synonymous.
And what is the 'evidence' for this? That Lenin, like Stalin, used force - described as "frenzied bloodletting" - to defeat the dispossessed landlords and capitalists during the Russian Civil War. So did Oliver Cromwell and the parliamentary forces against the Royalists in the English Civil War, and Abraham Lincoln and the North against the slave owners in the South during the American Civil War.
The "violence" of Lenin and the Russian workers' state was deployed against the undemocratic forces trying to cancel out the democratic will of the working class and the peasants of Russia.
River of blood
In Stalin's 1930s purge trials, it was Lenin's own party, the remnants of the Bolshevik party, which was slaughtered. Between Leninism - the ideas that led to the greatest and most democratic revolution in history - and Stalinism is a river of blood. Trotsky comments: "Stalin took possession of power, not with the aid of personal qualities, but with the aid of an impersonal machine. And it was not he who created the machine, but the machine that created him."
In other words, Stalin before the revolution was at best a secondary figure. Only after the isolation of the Russian Revolution and the gradual rise of a privileged bureaucratic elite did Stalin, with the authority of a 'revolutionary', represent this bureaucracy and personalise its rise.
Although based upon a planned economy, it was compelled to annihilate the remnants of the most democratic and heroic revolutionary party in history, the Bolsheviks. The bureaucracy feared that in a political revolution the masses would turn towards those figures connected with the heroic period of the revolution.
An understanding of how this process created Stalin and the socio-political phenomena of Stalinism - a one-party totalitarian regime resting on a planned economy - is beyond this author. Rather than just read this book, with its malicious falsehoods, it would be much more rewarding in this year, the 90th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, to go to the works of Lenin and Trotsky to understand this great event.