Stalin’s shadow

Last month was the 50th anniversary of Stalin’s death in March 1953. MANNY THAIN reviews the press coverage of this event. JOSEPH STALIN, the man who had terrorised the Soviet Union for almost 30 years, was pronounced dead on 5 March 1953, aged 73. Recent evidence suggests that he may have been killed by fellow members of the ruling elite – somehow administering a dose of the anticoagulant, warfarin, and leaving him to die from internal bleeding. It is said that medical attention was not sought until it was far too late. Those around his successor, Nikita Khrushchev, feared another major purge of the leadership was being planned.

Stalin’s closest henchman, Lavrenti Beria (head of the secret police), was summarily tried and executed shortly afterwards, to tidy things up. The half-century anniversary was used by the British and US media, in particular, to attack socialist ideas. Stalinist-type dictatorships are portrayed as inevitable consequences of revolutionary struggle. ‘The left’ (simplistically represented as a single bloc) stands accused of downplaying the viciousness of Stalinism, including ignoring anti-Jewish purges.

Parallels drawn between Stalin and Saddam Hussein are being used in a desperate attempt to discredit today’s anti-war movement. Above all, the message is that Stalinism ‘proves’ that it is impossible to radically change society. At the time of the Bolshevik revolution in October 1917, Russia was an extremely impoverished country, ravaged by the first world war. Soon after, imperialist armies invaded from all sides. The priority was to defend the Soviet Union until other workers’ states were established and international socialist federations could provide material assistance and solidarity. The revolutionary wave which swept the world, however, did not result in working-class control of any other country. The Soviet Union was isolated.

It was impossible under those conditions to introduce a system of democratic working-class control, management and planning. Workers were needed in the factories, with production geared towards the defence of the new workers’ state, providing (at best) subsistence levels of food and goods. Working-class people were also required on the frontline. As they became less and less able to participate in the running of society, the administration of the state fell to a relatively small number of people. Step by step, a bureaucratic elite crystallised. It consolidated its power through carrying out a bloody political counter-revolution, removing all the elements of workers’ democracy achieved in the 1917 revolution.

Once established, the regime’s primary objective was the preservation of its power and privileged position. An increasingly rigid, centralised control spread over everything from economic and foreign policy to social and cultural life. The repression grew harsher. Anyone perceived as a threat to Stalin and the bureaucracy was eliminated.

This often led to sudden shifts in policy, sometimes with devastating results. The Soviet Union’s remarkable industrial development had given the world a glimpse of the potential for economic planning – transforming an economically backward state into a world superpower. But it came at an immense human cost. Millions of people died of starvation after the forcedcollectivisation of land after 1927. Systematic purges saw millions of others arrested, tortured, dispatched to labour camps or executed. The total number of Stalin’s victims is incalculable. Many estimates fall around 20 million dead.

The media has focused on the suffering. It is also important, however, to recognise the heroic struggle against the regime. Above all, Leon Trotsky – one of the leaders of the revolution alongside Vladimir Lenin – organised the Left Opposition against the regime on a programme of workers’ democracy and internationalism. Ultimately, the Soviet Union’s isolation as the world’s only workers’ state was an insurmountable obstacle. In August 1940, after twelve years in exile, Trotsky was brutally murdered by one of Stalin’s agents in Mexico.

Many commentators have remarked on the shock, sometimes hysteria, which greeted Stalin’s death. He had loomed over every aspect of people’s lives – the ‘cult of the personality’. But the dictator’s demise was a joyous occasion for many. Nadezhda Levitsky, now 78 years old, was in a labour camp when she heard the news: "I remember one day a Tatar girl told me fearfully that Stalin was ill. Then another shouted: ‘I wish he’d die like a dog’. Everyone fell silent. But the next day, we were working in the fields, cutting out a line of trees, when the same girl came running towards us, screaming that he really was dead. We started hugging and kissing each other. We were so happy as we knew that something would change. We stopped working immediately that day. And the next". (The Guardian, 5 March 2003) Despite the bloody trail of shattered hopes and lives, the anniversary of Stalin’s death saw hundreds of Russian people file past his monument in Moscow’s Red Square. A survey quoted in the International Herald Tribune found that 6% of Russians ‘approved of Stalin’ in 1990, rising to 32.9% in 2001 (11 March 2003). That is because of the cataclysmic collapse of the Russian economy since capitalism has been restored. The last decade has seen an immense widening of the wealth gap, with extreme poverty at the bottom and untouchable, gangster capitalists gorging themselves at the top. The Guard ian journalist, Jonathan Freedland, wrote: "Economic hardship, chaos and corruption in government and collapsing health and welfare systems have fed a sense of hopelessness: 67% tell pollsters that the last decade is the worst they can remember". (5 March 2003)

Another theme of media’s anniversary coverage has been an attempt to draw a link between Stalin and Saddam Hussein. Apparently, Stalin’s number one fan is Saddam. A Wall Street Journal editorial stated: "Many who have been to Saddam’s personal library attest to it being replete with books on Stalin. The Iraqi has crammed on the great man’s techniques of terror and studiously applied them. From the use of show trials and purges to the cult of the personality, Stalin lives on in Saddam". (5 March 2003)

Although the methods of repression may be similar, their respective systems were founded on fundamentally different lines. The former Soviet Union was based on a non-capitalist, nationalised, planned economy, and the task facing the working class was to wrest control from the bureaucracy and implement workers’ democracy on the existing economic base – a political revolution. Saddam’s regime built links with the former Soviet Union and nationalised the oil industry and other key sectors – and vastly increased arms expenditure. It was a form of military state capitalism, still at root a capitalist economy. In Iraq a social revolution is required to transform the economy from one based on private property, dominated by big business and landlords, to one based on workers’ control and management.

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