The Man Who Would Be Stalin

Ronald Suny has given us the best picture to date of Stalin’s path to the October Revolution. But the story of the future dictator’s early life doesn’t explain the rise of Stalinism. The key developments and choices that produced that system came after the Bolsheviks took power.

Portrait of Joseph Stalin at around age 20, circa 1900. (Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)

The work under review is in a league of its own. Ronald Suny’s scholarly study of Stalin’s life until October 1917 goes beyond biography. It is a history of the workers’ movement and of social democracy in the tsarist empire, from the turn of the century down to and including the October Revolution, with special emphasis on the Caucasus.

Suny’s intervention is on an altogether different plane when we compare it to Stephen Kotkin’s study of the same topic. Kotkin’s multivolume biography, Stalin, is an unrelieved jeremiad against socialism and Marxism. That perspective stands in the way of an objective account of the intra-Russian Social Democratic controversies that consumed much of Stalin’s life as an underground revolutionary.

Suny’s scholarship is under no such disabling handicap. His nonparty socialism proves to be a help, not a hindrance.

The Hero and the Crowd

What caused Stalin to choose Marxism and social democracy over the other political and organizational alternatives that were becoming available to him as the nineteenth century drew to a close? Suny’s painstaking reconstruction of Stalin’s early years helps remove the sense that the young man’s choice was inevitable.

Ioseb Djugashvili was born in 1878 in the small village of Gori, Georgia, a land between the Black and Caspian seas that had been conquered by the tsars earlier in the century. His parents had once been serfs — emancipation only came in 1861 in Russia, shortly before the end of slavery in the United States, and even later in the Caucasus.

The future Stalin entered ecclesiastical school in 1888. He proved to be an excellent student and graduated in 1894, then moved to Tiflis, where he enrolled in the Tiflis Theological Seminary, intending to become a priest. He obtained his degree in 1899.

A city of 150,000 people, Tiflis was an important railway junction, with connections linking it to Baku and its oil fields, forty miles distant. At the time, Tsarist Russia was the leader in world oil production, a title that soon passed to the United States.

It was in Tiflis that the young man read banned books and became radicalized. As Suny writes, he “lost his faith in God and replaced it with a secular faith in social revolution.” It was a “path to a kind of salvation.” Friends at the seminary knew him as Koba, the protagonist of a Georgian novella, and Stalin’s boyhood hero.

The novella, Suny explains, presented the teenager with a vision of Georgian resistance to Russian oppression:

The struggle against injustice justified, indeed required, taking up weapons. Violence was inscribed in what had to be done. Koba represented a noble ideal of a man of honor unwilling to submit to injustice. Turning away from the comforts of society and embracing the freedom of the outlaw as Koba did attracted [Stalin].

At the same time, Koba’s teenage romantic and patriotic poetry, published in a local Georgian-language newspaper, spoke in an entirely different, pacific voice. Suny summarizes Koba’s overarching theme: “The task of liberating Georgia falls on the young, particularly the educated. But this new generation must overcome the inertia and hostility of the philistine crowd.” Here, the people’s liberator comes armed not with pistol and sword but with the written and spoken word.

In Suny’s rendering, once Stalin had broken with his youthful, romantic Georgian nationalism, his transition to Marxist social democracy and internationalism was a matter of course. But there were alternatives available to Koba. Two seemingly opposed facets of Koba’s pre-Marxist but secular thinking very much reflected two aspects of neo-populism, the competitor to Marxism and social democracy in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.

At one end of populist and neo-populist ideology, represented in Koba’s romantic poetry, was the intellectual (intelligent) who went among the inert and uncomprehending people to explain where their true interests lay. This was reminiscent of the “Go to the People” movement of the 1870s, when student youth, the privileged and university-educated sons and daughters of the landed gentry, had fanned out among the oppressed peasantry to teach them to be socialists. At the other end of Russian populism was the idea in the Georgian novella of the lone hero, Koba, dispensing swift justice, arms in hand, to (Russian) oppressors of the people — gentry, state officials, corrupt priests.

After the fiasco of the “Go to the People” movement in the late 1870s, the terrorist wing of Russian populism, the “People’s Will,” launched a campaign to assassinate prominent representatives of the tsarist state in the belief that isolated acts could be effective in weakening the autocracy. It, too, failed. The “Combat Organization,” a subgroup of the neo-populist Socialist Revolutionary Party, founded in 1901, resurrected that strategy.

Marxism, however, broke decisively with substitutionism — the idea, canvassed by many political ideologies, that only an external force, however conceived, could act as an agent of social emancipation. On the contrary, in Marx’s words, the “emancipation of the working class must be the task of the working class itself.”

Koba’s choice, then, was not so much to substitute one faith or religion for another. Once he forsook fideism, he had to choose among competing secular programs of social transformation, a choice grounded in and mediated by reasoned analysis of the heaving world around him.

Koba, like many other critically thinking youths of his time, soon immersed himself in the writings of Marx, Engels, and Karl Kautsky. At night, he and his fellow seminarians stealthily pored over a handwritten copy of Marx’s Capital, Volume I to understand the “laws of motion” of the capitalist mode of production. Koba had left bravado and quixotism far behind, never to return to them.

Propaganda vs. Agitation

In 1898, Koba joined Mesame Dassy, the local Social Democratic organization headed by Noah Zhordania, editor of Kvali (Furrow), a legal Marxist periodical published in Tiflis. For the next two years, Koba mostly worked as a propagandist for small groups of autodidact workers organized in study circles. Soon, new challenges presented themselves.

The workers’ movement in Russia first became an independent political force in 1897, when a spontaneous strike of unskilled, low-waged women workers in the St. Petersburg textile industry forced the autocracy to limit the working day to eleven and a half hours — an astounding victory, akin to Chartism compelling the British Parliament in 1847 to shorten the working day to ten hours for women and children. Direct, collective, working-class action had at last earned its bona fides in Tsarist Russia.

The demonstration effect of the St. Petersburg strike emboldened many more workers everywhere in the empire to engage in similar actions. In late 1898, several thousand Tiflis railway workers went on strike to protest wage cuts. In 1900 alone, there were seventeen strikes at fifteen enterprises in the city, compared to nineteen strikes at seventeen enterprises from 1870 to 1900. Henceforth, Social Democrats, intellectuals, and advanced workers alike had to define their position in relation to the newly awakened mass of workers, now on the move across the empire.

By 1900, Social Democrats in Tiflis, St. Petersburg, Moscow, and elsewhere were arguing over the kind of politics they would need to advance the cause. Some favored continuing with legal propagandistic work among a few workers, as Koba had been doing for the past two years. Many more called for agitation among the mass of workers who were now openly confronting management and the state through wildcat strikes and street demonstrations — with or without Social Democratic leadership.

Koba came forward as an articulate exponent of an activist politics, which would mean giving political leadership to mass street demonstrations, strikes, and political protests. He incurred the opposition of many legal Marxists writing for Kvali, who preferred to abstain from law-breaking activities — the future Menshevik leader Noe Zhordania especially. One memoirist wrote of Kvali that it was a platform for “intellectuals who read the workers lectures on astronomy or biology” but “did not go near them during strikes and would not allow them near for fear of persecution by the police and the gendarmes.”

But Koba and like-minded Social Democrats wanted to change the world, not just interpret it. “Don’t be afraid, the sun will not leave its orbit,” he lightheartedly reassured a young worker, “but you should learn how to carry on revolutionary work and help me to set up a little illegal printing press.” Koba moved from legal educational work to illegal direct action. So began Koba’s life as an underground revolutionary.

In line with the new politics, he and his comrades agitated among the city’s largest concentration of workers, the Tiflis main railway shops. Two thousand marched to commemorate May Day in 1901. Cossacks attacked the marchers and mass arrests followed.

A few months later, Koba was sent to Batum, where he immersed himself in the workers’ milieu. He got a job at the Rothschild oil company. In February 1902, he helped organize a mass walkout, distributing leaflets. Cossacks attacked once again. Koba and many others were arrested.

Clearly, Koba was in the thick of the workers’ movement, risking life and limb. Even the Georgian intellectuals of Kvali, long hostile to such agitation, grudgingly came around to the new interventionist politics.

Iskrists and Anti-Iskrists

By 1900, whether or not to agitate in the mass workers’ movement was no longer an issue for Social Democrats. The question now was what kind of mass-agitation politics they needed to develop, and the type of organization required to develop it. Koba became an adherent of the Iskrist trend in social democracy.

Georgi Plekhanov, Vladimir Lenin, and Julius Martov were the principal editors of Iskra. The first issue of the periodical, published in Stuttgart, appeared in December 1900 and was clandestinely distributed back home. For the next three years, the Iskrists campaigned to unite socialists, long used to operating independently of one another, into a duly constituted, empire-wide party with an elected leadership and an explicitly revolutionary program.

As part of Iskra’s literary campaign for political unity on its terms, Lenin wrote What Is to Be Done? (1902). He attacked the political strategy of reformism and economism advocated in Rabochee Delo. This was the organ of a competing social democratic trend, which believed that peaceful economic struggle for bread and butter alone, not militant political struggle for freedom and democracy as well, was the natural course of the labor movement that intellectuals ought not disturb.

Suny accords great importance to Koba’s ostensible self-identity as an intelligent to explain his preference for the Iskratrend over its competitors — too much perhaps. Belonging to the intelligentsia in Russia has historically meant bearing moral witness to the injustices of the current social order, or acting heroically and singlehandedly against it, in the absence of a mass political movement struggling for a better society.

But, as Suny shows in painstaking detail, Koba and many other Social Democrats did not abstain from or look down upon — let alone suppress — the spontaneously developing workers’ movement. On the contrary, they participated fully in it.

One of the great attractions of the Iskra trend, duly noted if not sufficiently appreciated by Suny, was its refusal to set up, or countenance, any opposition between intellectuals and workers. That division might have had some rationale in the period of propaganda in small circles of workers thirsting for self-improvement against the background of a somnolent proletariat. But it no longer made much sense once working men and women began to act and speak up in the tens and hundreds of thousands, creating their own capable worker leaders, propagandists, and orators — a dedicated cadre of Russian Bebels.

Now, the only politically relevant distinctions were those between autonomous vanguards composed of workers and intellectuals — Bolshevik, Menshevik, Socialist Revolutionary, etc. — operating inside the working-class movement and competing to win the confidence of the masses. The 1905 Revolution destroyed the intelligentsia as traditionally understood. Its residual members fell silent or became defenders of tsarist law and order.

A Bolshevik Avant la Lettre?

When Koba learned in late 1903 that the Iskrists had split at the Second Congress of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP) into Menshevik and Bolshevik factions, he sided with the Bolsheviks. Suny discovers a proto-Bolshevism in Koba long before the schism occurred.

In What is to Be Done? Lenin, citing Kautsky in support, had argued that the party must bring socialist consciousness to the working class “from the outside,” as left to itself, it could not rise above reformist trade union consciousness. Suny and many others think that Lenin made a “major revision” in Marxism by foregrounding the party’s tutelary role — described as a “Blanquist” stance, in reference to the nineteenth-century French revolutionary Auguste Blanqui.

However, Lenin’s fellow Iskrists, including Koba, did not detect any deviation from orthodoxy at the time. Nor did anybody else. The party did have a tutelary role — but it was not a Blanquist one.

Once Stalin became acquainted with the issues, the Mensheviks failed to convince him and many others that Lenin was calling for a cabal of intellectuals to make the revolution behind the backs of the workers. How was it that for nearly three years, no Menshevik had detected this monstrous perversion of Marxism? Plekhanov, the “father of Russian Marxism,” and Martov, future leader of the Mensheviks, had never sounded the alarm before.

As Koba saw it, Lenin’s contemporary critics were in fact opportunistic, because they were bringing in considerations that had never been brought to anyone’s attention before. Suny lets readers come to their own conclusions. On occasion, he stands backs to assess the larger significance of the Menshevik-Bolshevik split.

Koba, for Suny, was a trademark Bolshevik: “hard, firm, unbending” and unwilling to compromise. He carried on “vendettas” and delivered “blows to enemies without mercy,” thereby meeting “psychic needs” and expressing “emotional affinities.” In contrast, the Mensheviks were soft, and favored workers running the party, not intellectuals; they longed for more “European” forms of “socialist practice and program.” It was a clash of two political cultures whose politically concrete meaning would become clear only many decades later: social democracy vs. Stalinism.

However, Suny’s narrative does not sufficiently justify these grand generalizations. To take one example from many, Suny notes that as late as the summer of 1917, in the wake of the February Revolution, Stalin took the lead in efforts to conciliate Mensheviks and Bolsheviks, encouraging the reunification of the two trends.

This leads one to doubt the idea that there was an irreconcilable chasm in pre-1917 Russian Social Democracy, or that Stalin was by nature dead set against negotiation and compromise. The Menshevik interpretative framework — a Cold War trope, entangling most Marxists as well — influences Suny more than he cares to admit.

A Minority of One

Through 1904, every Social Democratic organization in the Caucasus rallied behind the London Congress majority, the Bolsheviks. But a clear-cut, strictly political Menshevik-Bolshevik division first emerged only in late 1904, supplementing their divergence over organizational questions. It would prove to be a significant and long-lasting disagreement, overshadowing most others.

All Iskrists had emphasized the hegemonic role of the working class in the coming bourgeois-democratic revolution. They had maintained unity on this question at the Second Congress of the RSDLP in August 1903. About a year later, however, the liberal opposition finally came out of a decade-long hibernation, roused to action by the intermittently growing workers’ movement.

Just like their French forebears of 1847, the Russian liberals “turned to political banquets to mobilize opposition,” Suny writes. The Menshevik editors of the “new” anti-Bolshevik Iskra, believing that the bourgeoisie was becoming radicalized, began to rethink the concept of working-class hegemony in the liberation movement. They now believed that the working class ought to yield its hegemonic role to liberal reformists in the struggle for political freedom and civic equality, lest it drive these newly awakened allies into the arms of reaction.

Koba, in contrast, defended the viewpoint of the “old” Iskra against what he and Lenin’s partisans saw as Menshevik backpedaling on the question of working-class leadership of the revolution — a self-denying ordinance for an avowedly revolutionary working-class party. Meanwhile, back in the Caucasus, the Mensheviks, who were unwilling to accept the decisions of the Second Congress as binding on all members, eventually gained the upper hand in 1905 through a series of organizational coups.

Suny tracks their somewhat unsavory efforts to prevent Koba from working for the cause. The Menshevik campaign in the region portrayed the Bolsheviks as intellectuals and outside agitators who were hostile to workers’ interests. It was successful, and leadership of most Social Democratic organizations passed into their hands. Many Bolsheviks became demoralized. Koba remained one of the few Bolshevik leaders active in the Caucasus over the next decade.

The 1905 Revolution, however, brought Bolshevik politics roaring back to the fore. By the end of 1905, Menshevik leaders, under pressure from their rapidly radicalizing rank and file, had become virtually indistinguishable politically from the Bolsheviks — if only for a few months.

The 1905 Revolution

Suny’s detailed account of the 1905 Revolution in the Caucasus and elsewhere is reason enough to read his book. Suny once again pretty much destroys the orthodox Social Democratic premise of Iskra, shared from the other side of the political fence by the “economists” and Bernsteinian revisionists of the opposing Rabochee Delo trend. This school of thought held that the workers’ movement would remain in the thrall of reformist, trade union ideology, with workers limiting themselves to spontaneous reformist, trade union activity — unless, that is, the tutelary party diverted that movement toward socialism and revolution.

Koba, the Bolsheviks, and revolutionary socialists generally came to see in the explosion of workers’ mass revolutionary self-activity in 1905 the practical and material basis for the working class as a whole to reject bourgeois reformist ideology. Through such activity, they could break with Samuel Gompers–style trade union consciousness and accept the Social Democratic worldview, revolution, and socialism with astonishing rapidity.

As a matter of routine and day-to-day political practice, Russian Social Democrats — Mensheviks and Bolsheviks alike — henceforth consigned the grand, socialism-comes-from-without theory to the dustbin of history. Cold War academics would subsequently retrieve it from that resting place and use it as a crucial prop for their historical narratives, fixing the terms of debate with their anti­–Cold War adversaries.

In June 1905, Lenin convened the all-Bolshevik Third Congress of the RSDLP in London. The Mensheviks boycotted it, meeting separately in Geneva. As Lenin saw it, the working class was playing a hegemonic role in the liberation movement, and not the liberal opposition, validating the Bolshevik analysis of the Revolution’s driving forces, and not the Menshevik one.

Koba did not attend the Congress but played his part in publicizing and defending its decisions, notably the call to prepare for an armed insurrection and the participation of Social Democrats in a provisional government should the tsar be overthrown. Menshevik leaders in Georgia, unlike those in Russia, supported both calls.

“In many ways,” Suny writes, quite a few Georgian Mensheviks were highly unorthodox, periodically unwilling to follow their national leadership:

Georgian Mensheviks were the most “Bolshevik” of Mensheviks, as the revolutionary years would demonstrate. Together both factions in Caucasia employed terror, formed armed units and fought the Tsarist police and army.

Mensheviks in Georgia fully supported, even directed, peasant uprisings in the Caucasus against their tsarist oppressors, as did Koba and the few Bolsheviks around him. For Bolsheviks everywhere, the peasantry was an indispensable ally in the struggle against the landed gentry, mainstay of the semi-feudal tsarist order. In the Caucasian province of Guria, peasants “marched with portraits of Marx, Engels, and Lassalle, along with the tsar’s portrait upside down.”

The revolutionary movement reached its apogee in October 1905, when workers went on a general strike, setting up the St. Petersburg soviet in the process. Strengthened by contemporaneous peasant uprisings, the revolution forced the tsar to issue a manifesto promising to set up an elected parliament, a duma. The “Days of Freedom” had come, flourishing for the next two months.

The Criticism of Arms

The years 1906 and 1907 were marked by decline and fall for the revolutionary movement, although Social Democrats came to this realization at different times and differed over the political lessons to be drawn from the Revolution’s outcome.

Koba and others organized armed self-defense combat units of peasants and workers to fight tsarist-inspired, blood-soaked pogroms against other nationalities, Jews, and socialists. One sterling Social Democratic militia action to protect Jews against state-sponsored terror was “rewarded with forty nickeled steel watches from Mendelsohn the jeweler.”

Soon, Social Democrats, as well as Socialist Revolutionaries and other organized political tendencies, expanded the scope of their operations. They created new offensive “guerrilla bands and terrorist gangs prepared to assassinate” enemy officials, provocateurs, and spies.

The means justified the ends, in Suny’s view: the “Marxists were not driven by irrational urges or emotional excesses.” But not all means were justified. In fact, Social Democrats opposed indiscriminate attacks on employers — economic terrorism — yet often had to give in to pressure from workers who wanted to murder foremen, factory directors, and even fellow workers who scabbed (this is something I had never heard of before).

Even so, terrorism could never become an “operative means to overthrow the regime” for Koba, otherwise he would have ceased to be a Social Democrat, as Suny well understands. Koba continued to write articles for the Bolshevik press. And he prepared to meet Lenin, the “mountain eagle,” for the first time at a Bolshevik-only conference to be held in the relative safety of Tammerfors, Finland, in December 1905.

Meeting Lenin, Forging Unity

Koba had imagined the Bolshevik leader as a “giant, as a stately representative figure of a man.” He later recalled his disappointment “when I saw the most ordinary individual, below average height, distinguished from ordinary mortals by, literally, nothing.”

Koba participated fully in the conference. The discussion centered on whether the Bolsheviks should participate in the upcoming elections to the Duma. Displaying a capacity to think for himself, Koba and other delegates argued for boycotting them. Lenin, joined by others, opposed him.

In the end, Koba and the boycotters had their way, with Lenin agreeing that those working in Russia knew the mood of the masses better than those in emigration. Finally, at the end of the conference, the delegates voted in favor of a Bolshevik-Menshevik merger at the next congress of the RSDLP.

The 1905 Revolution set in train a desire for political unity in the RSDLP. In the Caucasus — where, as we have noted, Bolsheviks by name were organizationally insignificant — the Mensheviks, especially their rank and file, came round to supporting Bolshevik politics.

However, by the time the delegates had arrived in April 1906 to attend the Fourth “Unity” Congress of the party, the tsarist state had dispersed the Petrograd Soviet and militarily crushed the Moscow insurrection of December 1905. The revolutionary movement in Russia was now clearly on the defensive.

The Menshevik leadership decided to go on the defensive as well. Koba and most Bolsheviks, however, remained on the offensive, confident that workers and peasants would soon turn the tide and overthrow the autocracy. As a result, daylight reappeared between the two tendencies as they looked to the future.

Lenin was also having second thoughts about a reversal of fortunes in the near future. Lenin’s stance led to tactical disagreements among the Bolsheviks, with Koba at odds with Lenin on several issues, notably the peasant question.

The “Unity” Congress

The Fourth “Unity” Congress met for three weeks in Stockholm in the spring of 1906. At the Congress, Suny writes, Koba “spoke with great assurance, critically evaluated alternative policies and distinguished questions of principle from matters of practice.” With this introduction, Suny once again takes seriously what Koba and other delegates had to say, unlike so many other scholars who are hell-bent on proving the existence of a monolithic Leninism in thrall to an unthinking, Nazi-style Führerprinzip and other beerhall simplicities.

The Mensheviks had a majority at the Congress and all the decisions of the Congress were Menshevik as well. The Bolsheviks tried to make the best of it with their minority. Koba held a position on the peasant question, which no other Bolshevik did, defending it against Lenin’s criticism. Suny recognizes it as of the greatest interest historically.

Koba argued for the Socialist Revolutionary demand “All Land to the Peasantry.” He did not support the Bolshevik call for nationalization of the land, or municipalization of the land as advocated by the Mensheviks. What broader politics lay behind these three positions?

The Mensheviks believed the 1905 Revolution had achieved a partial breakthrough. The creation of a legislative branch, the Duma, however limited in its power and however restricted the electoral franchise, had initiated the transformation of the tsarist state into a European-style constitutional state — a Rechtsstaat — at all levels.

From their perspective, direct confrontation with the commanding heights of the tsarist state threatened certain defeat, while a reformist long march through the newly created, post-1905 institutions promised slow but sure progress toward the full Europeanization of Russia. Among these institutions were the municipalities with local elected leaderships. These would discretely and quietly work for land reform.

For Koba and the Bolsheviks, the lack of meaningful reforms spoke to the Revolution’s depth. The Duma was a toy parliament. An armed uprising of the people to overthrow the state and the Duma alike was the only way forward. Once overthrown, a provisional government would take its place and, inter alia, nationalize gentry land without compensation.

Koba, however, had his own views on the land question specifically, formed from an appraisal of his hands-on experiences with the peasant movement in the Caucasus. “If the liberation if the proletariat can be the task of the proletariat, then the liberation of the peasants can be the task of the peasantry themselves,” he declared, standing on impeccably Marxist premises. Acting freely in their own interests, peasants wanted full partition of all the land, notexcluding large gentry estates.

Here, Koba parted ways with Lenin. Lenin was against peasant pulverization of gentry land into small plots, as this would be a step away from more productive, large-scale agriculture he had identified as being characteristic of the progressive, fast-paced “American” road to capitalism.

The Bolshevik leader thought Koba’s sociology was incorrect but, fortunately, politically harmless in the long run. Once freed of feudal or quasi-feudal restrictions on their productive activities, he believed, all peasants would strive to become capitalist competitors in their own right, whether or not they had seized gentry land. Koba and Lenin agreed that inside every peasant was a capitalist struggling to get out.

The peasant uprisings in the Caucasus had confirmed for Koba the practical truth of his standpoint at the Congress. When the peasantry once more went into action in 1917–18 across the Empire, it would again prove Koba right — and Lenin wrong — on every point but one. The Bolsheviks jettisoned the nationalization plank of their platform in favor of the Socialist Revolutionary call for all land to the peasantry. However, once the peasants had achieved full possession of all the land, they failed to make a transition either toward capitalism or, under the New Economic Policy (1921–29), toward socialism, confounding all Bolshevik expectations.

The peasants instead kept to their age-old ways, laying the basis for a crisis of agricultural underproduction in the late 1920s, and Stalin’s resolution of it through the policies of collectivization and industrialization that became known as Stalinism. But in 1906, it entered no one’s mind that this might become a practical possibility; it was a purely imaginary danger and destined to remain so — until it didn’t.

Meanwhile, Koba campaigned for the Bolsheviks in the upcoming elections to the Fifth Congress of the RSDLP. The Congress convened in May 1907 in London: the Swedes, Danes, and Norwegians had successively denied the Russian Social Democrats permission to hold the Congress in their countries. The Bolsheviks and their allies were once more in the majority, reaffirming the revolutionary, not parliamentary, road to reform and revolution. Koba listened but made no noteworthy contribution to the debates.

The Congress incidentally moved to ban all expropriations — robberies — to finance the cause. But upon his return to Tiflis, Koba allowed one last heist, already far along in the planning stages, to proceed. On June 13, 1907, there was a spectacular shoot-out. The Bolshevik robbers stormed the stagecoach carrying the postal money and got away with 250,000 rubles, a record haul.

But the tsarist secret police had not been asleep. They knew the serial numbers of the five-hundred-ruble notes, and all Bolshevik emissaries who tried to exchange the tainted bills in the West were caught.

Stolypin’s Coup

The tsarist state’s growing success in savagely repressing the mass revolutionary movement culminated with Prime Minister Pyotr Stolypin’s coup of June 3, 1907, launched days after the Fifth Congress adjourned.

Stolypin had dissolved the first elected Duma in the summer of 1906 because it contained too many Social Democrats and representatives of the oppressed more generally. In the Caucasus, for example, Social Democrats had taken nine out of ten precincts in Tiflis and secured majority support among peasants — a stunning victory. Elections to the Second Duma in March 1907 returned an even more radical majority.

In response, Stolypin established a new, far more restrictive electoral law guaranteeing gentry domination of all future elected dumas — all done in violation of the supposedly inviolate Fundamental Laws. Now, even the Bolsheviks — Koba included — recognized that a reversal of revolutionary fortunes in the short run was no longer realistic. The counterrevolution was here to stay for the foreseeable future.

Stolypin’s Third of June regime reinforced both Menshevik and Bolshevik political strategies. The Mensheviks stuck even more firmly to their reformist course, while the Bolsheviks thought a second edition of the 1905 Revolution — only one that was bigger, better, stronger — was still the only way forward in the long run.

At the same time, Koba, Lenin, and most Bolsheviks agreed that running candidates in elections to the Duma was a necessary component of a revolutionary strategy, albeit one that should always be subordinated to mass direct action in the streets, on the shop floor, and in the neighborhoods. To their mind, prioritizing parliamentary and reformist politics, as the Mensheviks did, could never generate sufficient pressure on the tsarist state to grant meaningful reforms — let alone overthrow it.

Years of Reaction: 1907–12

The counterrevolution was implacable. Stolypin authorized thousands of hangings and shootings. Armed squads demolished the family homes of oppositionists. Weariness and disillusionment set in.

Workers left the RSDLP in droves. Membership dropped from 150,000 in 1907 to less than a thousand by 1910. Most would eventually return in 1917, with tens of thousands of fresh recruits joining them. Koba, for his part, stayed the course in these difficult years, staunchly defending Bolshevik positions.

The full blast of Stolypin’s murderous repression did not hit the Caucasus until mid-1908. In the interim, the region — especially Baku, where Koba was operating — was one of the freest in the empire, with workers in the oil industry organizing trade unions and negotiating contracts in conferences with industrialists.

As elsewhere, Mensheviks and Bolsheviks competed for leadership, with the latter insisting on preparing strikes, boycotts, and other forms of firepower to back up their representatives at the negotiating table should management prove obdurate. They also pressed for industrial unionism, not the craft unionism favored by the Mensheviks.

Lenin and Koba saw eye to eye on several key points: the need to work in the legal labor movement; to refuse to boycott the Duma, as some left Bolsheviks advocated; and to maintain the clandestine revolutionary party, securing it as best as possible from complete destruction by the tsarist state.

Selected to serve on the editorial board of Pravda, the Bolshevik national paper, Koba became closely involved in the politics of the Social Democratic caucus in the Duma. He pressed the Mensheviks to spurn reliance on the bourgeois liberals of the Kadet Party, to follow the Fifth Congress decisions, and to collaborate with the Bolsheviks.

In the spring of 1908, the police arrested most trade union leaders and militants of all political stripes, including Koba. By the end of 1909, there were three hundred Bolsheviks in Baku; two years later, they were down to two hundred, bottoming out at one hundred by early 1913. Koba had made the most of the legal labor movement. Once the state had crushed European-style trade union politics, he drifted back into the underground.

The “ephemeral nature of mass organizations became apparent to all,” Suny writes, and “the real value of the party underground reasserted itself” in the eyes of the Bolsheviks and Koba. Among the Mensheviks, however, the value of the party underground was fast becoming illusory, and Social Democrats needed to tailor their politics to the new reactionary conditions.

The Mensheviks wanted to wrap up the underground apparatus of the party, which no longer really existed, and proceed along the only path that seemed practical to them — that of reform, not revolution. They favored a law-abiding political organization modeled, at least aspirationally, on the German Social Democratic Party. Koba did his part to polemicize against the Menshevik policy of liquidating the RSDLP: in the absence of bourgeois democracy, he warned, it could only exist as a revolutionary and, therefore, illegal party — or not at all.

At the January 1912 Prague Conference, Lenin declared the Bolsheviks to be the only true representative of the RSDLP. Shortly after, Lenin co-opted Koba into the Central Committee, adopting the pseudonym Stalin. Suny explains Lenin’s motivation.

The Caucasus, Baku especially, had supplied Lenin with his “hardest” followers:

They were accustomed to underground life and work, completely dedicated to the politicization of the labor movement, yet willing and able to use legal labor institutions. Throughout the years of “reaction,” they had gone along with Lenin.

These activists attacked the Mensheviks “who saw the legal labor movement as the main arena for activity.”

The National Question

Suny offers a detailed analysis of the national question in the tsarist empire. This question retains contemporary interest as the “Leninist” position still remains the default one for many socialists today.

After involved discussions with Lenin, Stalin wrote three lengthy articles on the relationship between class and nation, acquiring the reputation of an expert on the matter. Lenin edited Marxism and the National Question, the work of the man he called the “marvelous Georgian.”

In a nutshell, Stalin explained that Social Democrats everywhere, particularly those of the oppressor nations (such as Russia), must defend the right of oppressed nationalities (such as Georgia) and colonies in what later became known as the Third World to secede and form their own nations. Social Democrats must clearly oppose all alternatives which deny this right, such as the “national-cultural autonomy” advocated by the Mensheviks, the Bundists, and the Austro-Marxists, or the views expressed within the camp of German social democracy by Rosa Luxemburg. He insisted that these alternatives were internationalist in word only, playing into the hands of nationalists and colonialists, not internationalists.

At the same time, social democrats everywhere, particularly those of the oppressed nations, had to point out the benefits of doing away with all national antagonisms in favor of international solidarity of working classes worldwide, no matter their nationality. This was consistent with the growing interdependence of all peoples realized through a division of labor spanning the whole globe.

In some cases, however, reasoning alone might not be enough to dissuade people from forming their own states. Here, only practical experience with national independence could convince people of the advantages of internationalism, of a free union of all peoples.

Mugshot of the young revolutionary (and future Soviet leader) Joseph Stalin by tsarist secret police. (Wikimedia Commons)

By the time his work appeared in print, Stalin had once again lost his freedom. In February 1913, a fellow Central Committee member, Roman Malinovskii, reassured Stalin that he could attend a police-authorized gathering without fear. Instead, he was arrested. Malinovskii was later revealed to be an agent of the tsarist secret police, the Okhrana.

Stalin spent the next four years in Siberian exile. He published nothing in that period. The authorities kept a close eye on him, transferring him to ever more remote places in Siberia whenever they got wind of plans to help Stalin escape — plans that Stalin communicated as quickly as possible to none other than Malinovskii.


All the member parties of the Second International had solemnly sworn to do everything in their power to prevent war or, if it broke out anyway, to stop it by any means necessary. The RSDLP was one of the few to follow through. But socialist party leaders elsewhere, Suny writes, “made little effort to rally” the “tens of thousands of workers and socialists who had demonstrated against the war.”

In noting popular opposition to the war, Suny renders the reader a signal service. He doesn’t buy the view that party leaderships had no choice but to support the war because the “people” were in favor of it. Most historians repeat this canard. The plain fact is that many socialists volunteered to become blood-thirsty, warmongering patriots. The Russians have an apposite saying: “Perhaps they were forced to go to the school of evil — but what forced them to become A pupils?”

Within a few months, divisions appeared among anti-war socialists in the Second International over the question of how to stop the slaughter. Lenin called for the transformation of the imperialist war between capitalist states into a civil war between classes. This invariably meant undercutting the capacity of every capitalist state to pursue the war to victory — in effect, calling for their defeat. Lenin agreed that it did, and that was just the point. Lenin invoked the German revolutionary socialist Karl Liebknecht: “The main enemy is at home.”

Suny is uncertain if Stalin stood by Lenin’s defeatism. Although he clearly staked out an anti-war position, it seems that he never explicitly endorsed the defeat of tsarist Russia as the lesser evil.

Meanwhile, in Petrograd, thousands of famished women raided bakeries in late February 1917, detonating a mass uprising of workers and soldiers. Within days, they had overthrown the three-hundred-year-old Romanov dynasty. Soon, Stalin and many other exiles were on their way to the capital of “Free Russia.” Lenin, in Swiss exile, would soon rejoin them.

The February Revolution

Stalin’s attitude toward the war became clear once the Provisional Government had supplanted the defunct monarchy: he became a “revolutionary defensist,” as did all fellow Central Committee members in Russia. According to their viewpoint, Russia was no longer an autocracy but on its way towards becoming a democracy through the long-awaited bourgeois-democratic revolution. The new order required defense from German imperialism.

The middle and upper echelons of the Bolshevik Party tried to make sense of events within the “Old Bolshevik” framework of 1905. As we have seen, that framework had called for RSDLP participation in a provisional government to give a “proletarian imprint” to the bourgeois-democratic revolution. In 1917, no one initially questioned the idea of the bourgeois-democratic revolution itself.

Suny, however, tends not to cleanly separate out the question of participation in a provisional government from that of the social character of the revolution. As a result, his analysis of what the Bolsheviks stood for before Lenin arrived in Petrograd in April 1917 is not entirely clear. But Suny is thorough, and it is possible for the reader to sort it all out.

Stalin, together with Lev Kamenev, led the Bolsheviks for three weeks. Suny narrates how both men quickly overruled the local Petrograd Bolshevik call for an RSDLP-led provisional government to replace the Kadet-led one, thereby creating a Revolutionary Provisional Government, or what Lenin had called in 1905 a “democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry.”

No one among the Bolsheviks, even the most radical among them, called for “All power to the soviets” — a strategic reorientation toward workers’ rule and socialism. Everyone stuck to the 1905 bourgeois-democratic scenario with one purely tactical modification by Stalin and Kamenev to take into account what they considered the monstrous anomaly of the Kadet party, not the RSDLP, assuming leadership of the Provisional Government.

Because the Kadets were in charge of it, Stalin and Kamenev disapproved of representatives of workers and peasants taking part in the Provisional Government — specifically, by holding cabinet seats in it. All Social Democrats had long condemned Millerandism, or socialist participation in bourgeois administrations, so-called after the French socialist politician who had gone down this road.

Instead, they should stay outside and critically support the Kadets insofar as they carried out the bourgeois-democratic revolution to the very end. This would mean holding elections to a constituent assembly, which, once convened, would write up a constitution for a democratic republic — the ideal political form of the capitalist state for the workers’ movement. Neither Stalin nor anyone else among the Bolsheviks had an alternate plan of action in place insofar as the Provisional Government did not do what it was supposed to do in the interim — end the war and give land to the peasants and bread to the workers.

In short, the top Bolshevik leadership on Russian soil renounced any attempt to organize a campaign to seize power in the name of the soviet — let alone in its own name. They did so because of the longstanding Social Democratic orthodoxy, according to which no proletarian-led socialist revolution could be on the agenda in a country like Russia.

The April Theses

Lenin arrived at the Finland Station in early April. Having examined from afar the balance of class forces and concluded that it favored a Soviet-led socialist revolution, he campaigned for “All Power to the Soviets.” This meant jettisoning the idea of critical support to the Provisional Government — let alone joining it, as the Mensheviks were eventually to do, formally implementing the 1905 Bolshevik slogan, but now devoid of a revolutionary politics pushing beyond bourgeois democracy.

Stalin and Kamenev’s leadership of the Bolsheviks defaulted to Lenin. Kamenev put up a rearguard action. He argued against Lenin’s intention of rearming the party with a new platform that was closely akin to Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution. Stalin kept quiet and listened. He chose to follow the “mountain eagle.”

For the next six months, Stalin acted as a party whip, liaising with various organizations and writing articles defending the Bolshevik party’s new revolutionary, internationalist, socialist perspective. No outstanding role accrued to him to catch the eye of the historian. The Revolution put a premium on public tribunes like Lenin and Trotsky: Stalin was neither.

Having won a majority in all the soviets, the Bolshevik party led them to seize all power on October 25, 1917. A new era in world history had opened.


There was little in Stalin’s passage to revolution that meaningfully presaged his passage to counterrevolution in the second half of his life, from 1917 to ’53: the destruction of the peasantry, the political expropriation of the working class, the Great Terror, the gulag, World War II, and the Cold War.

On the contrary, in 1917, the Bolsheviks — including Stalin — foresaw the internationalization of the Russian revolution and the world-historical victory of socialism, relegating the idea of “socialism in one country” to an imaginary, alternative future. That was their vision of things to come. Unfortunately, Suny does not see it that way. The Russian Revolution, he writes, “created the milieu” that Stalin “required to rise swiftly to prominence, and eventually, to absolute power.”

Hindsight has always exercised a baleful influence on historians, even the best of them — and Suny is certainly among the best. Knowledge of the future can lead to a teleological conception of the past. Different historians start their teleology at different times. Most historians divine the roots of Stalinism from an early stage, looking back to the time when Stalin was Koba, or even earlier, as a child of the times. At the conclusion of his study, Suny traces the origins of Stalinism from a much later point.

However, if readers attentively read Suny and banish any knowledge of post-1917 world history, they will, I think, find it difficult to imagine the future as it actually turned out. The crucial choices and factors that gave rise to the Stalinist system came into play after 1917. Only a study with a different chronological focus can properly analyze that process. Suny deserves our gratitude for having produced such a fine account of what came before it.