How Joseph Stalin Became a Bolshevik

Ronald Suny

Ronald Suny’s Stalin: Passage to Revolution traces Joseph Stalin’s trajectory from his boyhood in Georgia to the Russian Revolution in 1917. In an interview, Suny explains the specificities of the Georgian socialist movement, Stalin’s role in the revolution, and why Stalinism was “bloody, ruthless,” and “the nadir of the Soviet experiment.”

Young Russian revolutionary and political leader Joseph Stalin in 1915. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Interview by
Chris Maisano

Joseph Stalin is having a bit of a moment. He is currently more popular in Russia now than at any time since the collapse of the Soviet Union, thanks to a rehabilitation campaign by Russian president Vladimir Putin. The Death of Stalin was one of the most acclaimed films of recent years. And in certain quarters of the internet, young Stalin is regarded not as one of history’s greatest monsters but one of its biggest hotties.

Ronald Suny has devoted his life to studying the history of the Soviet Union and the countries of the South Caucasus. His newest book is the long-awaited biography Stalin: Passage to Revolution, which chronicles the transformation of a sensitive Georgian boy named Iosib “Soso” Djugashvili into the man known to the world as Stalin. Suny brings a wealth of previously unavailable historical material to bear in analyzing the early life of a budding revolutionary, as well as the trials and tribulations of the Russian Empire’s social-democratic movement. It also sheds light on the underappreciated legacy of Georgia’s social democrats, who played a leading role in the 1905 and 1917 revolutions and established an independent, Menshevik-led republic in 1918–1921.

Suny spoke with Jacobin contributing editor Chris Maisano about the making of Stalin, the pioneering contributions of Georgian social democracy, and how socialists today should view Stalin’s legacy.

Chris Maisano

There’s no shortage of material on Stalin out there. What motivated you to write this particular book?

Ronald Suny

About thirty years ago, I asked myself how I could get people interested in the area that I’ve invested so much of my life into. That is what we now call the South Caucasus, the countries that are today Armenia, Georgia, and Azerbaijan. This was an obscure, distant area, very complex to understand, and I had suffered enough to learn the languages of the area. I’m Armenian by heritage but born in the United States, so Armenian was not my native language. My parents spoke it, but not to me. So I learned that in graduate school.

Then I went to Georgia. I learned Georgian, which is very difficult. And at the moment, I’m now working on learning Turkish. It took a long time to get all this stuff done. Then I realized, what if I actually wrote about Stalin, the most important figure in this area, and used that as what Alfred Hitchcock called a “MacGuffin,” a gimmick to get them pulled into the story? That was one motivation.

The second, as any of my students at Michigan, or earlier at Oberlin or the University of Chicago, would know: I have a great interest in socialism, Marxism, the labor movement, Russian social democracy, and so forth. Those are the two things that led me to take on this topic. It proved to be very successful, even though it took a long time, because you have that central figure you can follow through this very complex and shifting history from roughly his birth, in December 1878, to the revolution in 1917. This is the story of young Stalin, the making of the revolutionary. Maybe, if I live long enough, I’ll write the second volume. We’ll see. Inshallah.

Why did it take so long? As I started to write in the 1980s and signed my first contract, I realized that the Soviet Union was shifting (though I didn’t know it was going to collapse). Then the archives started being opened. So I just put it aside to write some other books: The Soviet Experiment, They Can Live in the Desert but Nowhere Else: A History of the Armenian Genocide, The Revenge of the Past, a number of other things. Then I came back to Stalin and worked in the Russian and Georgian archives, and in Armenia, and got the book that you see today.

Chris Maisano

As you said, the book covers from his birth to the 1917 revolution, the young Stalin. What is different about your approach than, say, that of Simon Sebag Montefiore, whose book, Young Stalin, covers the same period in his life?

Ronald Suny

I met Simon Sebag Montefiore in a café in Kensington, in London, once. He said, “So what are you interested in, and why are you writing this book?” This was before his book came out. And I said, “Oh, I’m interested in the labor movement, Marxism, social democracy, revolution.” And he said to me, “Oh, good. I’m interested in his women.” So I thought, “Well, okay, we have a nice division of labor.”

Montefiore wrote a very readable book. There’s lots of good stuff in it. He didn’t himself go into the archives, he doesn’t know Georgian, and I’m not sure how good his Russian is, even. But he did work there, and he got a lot of material, some of it brand new. That was good for me. But his book is a popular book. It’s a little bit, in my taste, sensationalist. Stalin is a bandit, a gangster, a womanizer, even a pedophile in the book. In all of these ways, it’s a different kind of book, and it doesn’t deal with Stalin’s journalistic writings, his theory of nationalities (which is key to his success), the intricacies and nuances of Russian social democracy.

My book is basically a scholarly book, but I tried to write it in an accessible way. Any intelligent person can read the book and understand what’s going on. But it’s based on the conventions of historical scholarship, which is looking for anomalies and dealing with contradictions. Everything is evidence-based. This is the way I decided to do the book. Stephen Kotkin at Princeton has written two of what will be three or four volumes on Stalin, but he largely neglects the earlier period of Stalin’s life. He has some of the conventional sources, but he’s not interested in the intricacies of this movement, or of Stalin’s early psychology. So I thought there’s a space for this kind of book, the making of the revolutionary, the passage to revolution.

Chris Maisano

One of the things that really stands out in your book is how many of the key figures in the Russian Empire’s social-democratic movement came from Georgia. Why was Georgia, an isolated country with a very small industrial working class, one of social democracy’s biggest strongholds?

Ronald Suny

In general, lots of people think that there is something of a natural tendency to move from empire to nation. That is, that you develop a sense of who you are as a nation, you revolt against colonialism, and you make your new state. So one would’ve expected that the nationalist movement in Georgia would’ve been the most powerful. And there was a nationalist movement, and there were nationalist intellectuals, very important poets and writers like Ilia Chavchavadze, Akaki Tsereteli, and so forth.

But what’s very interesting is that, in the 1890s, certain Georgian intellectuals, many of whom came out of the same religious Orthodox seminary that Stalin would go through, migrated to Poland and to Russia and came back with what was then the most progressive, Western, revolutionary, modernizing philosophy: Marxism. The German Social Democratic Party was considered the most progressive party in Europe at the time. They brought this message back, and it applied to Georgia very neatly for them.

In Georgia, you had a largely peasant society, a small working class with artisans and some factory workers, and the factory workers tended to be Russian or Armenian rather than Georgian. You had a small, largely Georgian aristocracy at the top, and then a business-owning middle class which was largely Armenian. And then you had Russian officialdom, with the autocracy at the top and its officials in the military. That was the social structure of Georgia in the 1890s. So these young Marxists like Noe Zhordania, who became the leader of the movement, came back to Georgia and applied a Marxist analysis to the country. Instead of saying our enemies are Russians or Armenians, which is the position the nationalists took, these Marxists said our enemy is the autocracy and the oppressive regime, not the Russians per se. And they were against capitalism and the bourgeoisie, not the Armenians per se.

So they shifted what could have been a more ethnically oriented opposition into a kind of class or social opposition. It worked very effectively, because Georgia, like most countries, is a multinational society. Surprisingly, perhaps, it soon moved from being the ideology of this intellectual elite to the national liberation movement of Georgians.

Then a very strange and interesting thing happened. Just after the turn of the century, in 1902, local peasants in a place called Guria in western Georgia revolted against their landlords. Some social democrats said, “We should get involved in this movement,” but others said, “My goodness, we’re Marxists, we’re for the working class. Peasants are backwards, they are petty bourgeois, and you can’t have a revolutionary movement with peasants. They’ll turn into our enemies as they did in 1848 and 1871 with the Paris Commune. No way.”

But eventually these Georgian Marxists — who later become Mensheviks, the more moderate wing of the empire’s Social Democratic Party — linked up with these revolutionary peasants. The movement was started by the peasants, who then looked for leaders. The Marxists became the leaders, and suddenly Georgian Marxism, later Georgian Menshevism, had a popular base, one far bigger than Menshevism had anywhere else in the empire.

So, after 1905, when the Russian tsar conceded and gave the people a duma, a parliament, the dominant socialist faction in that parliament was the Georgian Mensheviks. They became leaders of the social-democratic faction in the duma, and later the leaders of the Russian revolution of 1917 after February, until the Bolsheviks took over later that year.

Chris Maisano

Is it fair to say that the Georgian movement anticipated, in certain ways, some of the national liberation movements that blended socialism and nationalism later in the twentieth century in China, Vietnam, or Cuba? There are obviously many differences between Georgia and those other countries, but the parallels are striking.

Ronald Suny

Absolutely right. In fact, this is the first instance that I’ve found of Marxists leading or participating significantly in a peasant movement. Which then, as you say, in the extra-European world becomes more of a model. I should also emphasize that of all the Russian social democrats, it was actually Vladimir Lenin, the leader of the Bolshevik faction, who was most willing to ally himself with the poor peasants — unlike the Russian Mensheviks. So there was a clear difference between Georgian and Russian Mensheviks there.

The Russian Mensheviks wanted to ally with bourgeois liberals and were worried about scaring them off into reaction. Lenin did not want to ally with the bourgeois liberals and said, “No, don’t be afraid of that. Let’s ally with the poor peasantry and the working class. We’ll have a democratic coalition of the lower classes, and we can make a revolution that way.”

Chris Maisano

Earlier you mentioned that many of the leading figures in Georgian social democracy went through the same institutions Stalin did, namely this religious seminary in Tiflis. What made this seminary such a factory of revolutionaries? I’m sure this was not the goal of the people who ran it.

Ronald Suny

Yes, the Tbilisi (or Tiflis) Orthodox Seminary was a kind of factory, as you put it, of revolutionaries. Its mission was to produce priests, and that’s what Stalin’s mother wanted him to become, but it actually produced revolutionaries. It’s not hard to explain why. First of all, the seminary was run by the most ruthless and repressive Russian Orthodox priests who looked down on the Georgians and were intent on “Russifying” them. Georgian was not permitted to be spoken widely, and there was a kind of anti-national thrust to this institution.

When Stalin went into the seminary he was in fact a kind of romantic Georgian nationalist. He wrote poetry, he loved singing, he loved Georgian music. Through his education there, his own nationality seemed threatened by those Russifying priests who called Georgians dogs, called their language a dog language. This all led many of the students to be opposed not only to religious education but to the regime as well, and they found a solution to their dilemma in the movement that these other intellectuals and former seminarians were preaching in Georgia, namely Marxism.

Chris Maisano

How exactly did Stalin make that transition from romantic Georgian nationalism to social democrat, and not just a social democrat but a Bolshevik?

Ronald Suny

My biography is not psychoanalytical. I haven’t taken a kind of Freudian point of view, because I don’t think, as a historian, I can psychoanalyze Stalin one hundred years after the fact. But you don’t do biography without psychology. You have to figure out, by his writings and actions and what other people said about him, what his mentality was, as far as we can determine. There are parts of the brain and the mind that are closed to historians, but we do the best we can.

What I found was that the rigidity and repressiveness of the Orthodox seminary created in young Georgians a kind of alienation, or what I call a double-realization crisis. They were, like Stalin, poor and socially peripheral. It was hard to even survive in that environment. Secondly, they were being challenged not only by social and class prejudices but by the ethnic prejudices promoted by the regime. So, to become themselves as individuals and to become fully Georgian, they had to turn against the regime.

Stalin found a hero in a short novel called The Patricide by a writer named Aleksandre Qazbegi. The hero of the story is Koba, a ferocious outlaw who lives in the mountains and takes revenge on those who have committed injustices against the people. Vengeance is a way of reestablishing a just order, by getting rid of those who have broken the traditional ways of justice and fairness. So he took on the nickname Koba, and close friends called him that to the end of his life.

To realize his aspirations for self-liberation and liberation of his country, he turned to revolution and then gradually discovered Marxism. Marxism is not a nationalist philosophy, it’s international and cosmopolitan, and step by step he gravitated toward the Russian social democratic movement, the movement the Georgian Marxists were propagating. He adopted the most advanced, modern, and progressive philosophy that was available in Georgia, and eventually turned his back on his own country.

Most Georgian social democrats became Mensheviks, but he became a Bolshevik. Why Bolshevism? In 1902, Lenin wrote a pamphlet called Chto Delat, or What Is to Be Done?, This pamphlet, which has been much misunderstood, was a polemic within the small circles of Russian social democracy arguing against what Lenin and others called “economism.” Economism was a kind of reformist approach that focused on supporting workers in their efforts to reduce working hours, improve working conditions, and raise wages, not the political struggle against the regime itself. Lenin, of course, was always dedicated to revolution, and he argued in What Is to Be Done? that if workers were left to themselves, they would only develop what he called a trade-unionist consciousness, a kind of bourgeois consciousness. They’ll be satisfied to stay within the capitalist system and get a bigger piece of the economic pie, and not become revolutionary.

In order for workers to become revolutionary, social democrats need to bring the message to them so they can understand fully the repression they live under and the need for revolution. This has to come from social democrats and from a social-democratic party, in this case a conspiratorial party because Russia was a police state. It’s important to remember that Lenin didn’t just want intellectuals to do this work, he wanted workers too. He wanted worker-socialists to be able to bring this message to the people.

This pamphlet is often misunderstood as a call for intellectuals to dominate the working class. That’s not the case. Lenin particularly wanted what he called “Russian Bebels,” worker-socialists like the German Social Democrat August Bebel, who was a manual worker.

Stalin, of course, was precisely that. His father was a shoemaker. So he was a worker-intellectual, and Lenin promoted him for that reason. Lenin believed that workers do have natural tendencies toward socialism. But given the dominance of bourgeois culture, of the hegemony, as he called it, of bourgeois ideas, it’s very difficult for them to gravitate spontaneously toward socialism. The social democrats can bring that message and teach workers about the need for the socialist consciousness and a revolutionary posture. That’s the message of What Is to Be Done?.

The original cover of Vladimir Lenin’s What Is to Be Done? (1902).

Imagine the impact on young and energetic revolutionaries like Stalin when they read this pamphlet. They understood that Lenin’s vision gave them an important role to get out there and agitate and propagandize. So Stalin moved very quickly toward this Leninist posture, which did have some support in Georgia at this time, 1902–04. But the leaders of what’s called the mesame dasi, the “third generation” of intellectuals who brought the message of Marxism to Georgia, became Mensheviks, and the Georgian movement came under the leadership of Menshevism in 1905.

Stalin and the few Georgian Bolsheviks who remained loyal to Lenin were left high and dry, generals without an army. Eventually, Stalin had to abandon Georgia and go to Baku, the oil-producing center on the Caspian Sea, today the capital of Azerbaijan, where the Bolsheviks had some meaningful support from the workers. Later on, in 1905, Lenin put the argument of What Is to Be Done? aside and said, “Workers are now out in the streets. They’re making revolution. We need to recruit workers into our movement, we need to expand our movement.” Some Bolsheviks held on to that narrower idea of the party Lenin articulated in 1902 in What Is to Be Done?, and that conception will later come back in Soviet times. But when the workers were spontaneously getting active and revolutionary, Lenin wanted to celebrate that.

Chris Maisano

Stalin really seemed to imbibe the idea that social-democratic worker-intellectuals had a very important and special role to play in building the movement and bringing their message to the masses. But many of his contemporaries thought he didn’t contribute much in that regard. N. N. Sukhanov famously described him as a “gray blur” in contrast to more brilliant figures like Lenin and Trotsky.

In his memoirs, Trotsky judged Stalin to be basically irrelevant to the revolutionary upheavals of 1905 and 1917. But you see Stalin as a more important figure in the movement than these critical assessments made him out to be. What role did Stalin actually play, not just in the Bolshevik faction but in the social-democratic movement as a whole?

Ronald Suny

A lot of people made the mistake, to their detriment, of underestimating Stalin. Stalin had real talents. He wasn’t a flamboyant and eloquent orator like Trotsky. He wasn’t a sophisticated and nuanced theorist like Lenin. But he had real skills.

Stalin’s great talent was what a friend of mine, Paul Gregory, called the “ground game.” Rather than just writing articles (which he did) or speaking to crowds, he worked at organizing and getting to people in the factories, working with people and trying to agitate them into action on the streets. Stalin was very good at that. Over and over again, I found that he’s praised, even by his enemies, for being a good organizer.

There’s a funny anecdote which is probably not true, but it’s illustrative. Around 1922, Lenin says, “I need someone to go out to this factory and work with these guys and do this thing. Trotsky, can you do that?” Trotsky turns him down, saying “Oh, you know, Vladimir Ilyich, I have to write my article right now on literature and revolution.” Stalin says, “I’ll do it.” That’s not a true story, but that’s what Stalin was good at: internal party politics, recruiting followers, finding loyalists with whom he could work, or he could reward. That’s what made Stalin successful.

Stalin would have been a good mafia boss, or corporate CEO. He knew how to play those internal political games, and he had his own ideas. Stalin’s other great talent was he could take the very sophisticated ideas of Lenin, like the ones I’ve described in What Is to Be Done?, simplify and articulate them in ways that were very boring to other intellectuals but were effective in convincing ordinary people, workers, or whomever of his points of view.

Chris Maisano

You mention that he was not a great theorist, but one of the key moments in his career was the publication of his writings on the “national question,” which raised his profile in the movement. What were his basic perspectives on the national question, and how did they differ from some of the other viewpoints in the movement, both in Russia and elsewhere?

Ronald Suny

Around 1913, he produced a pamphlet which is sometimes called Marxism and the National Question — it has various titles. It was commissioned by Lenin and it basically followed Lenin’s ideas. At this time he was an obscure lower or middle party official, on the Bolshevik central committee but still not a noted figure. This writing became extraordinarily important later on when the Bolsheviks took power, when he became first the commissar of nationalities and eventually the autocrat of the Soviet Union. So the ideas become important.

Stalin, in 1911, at about thirty-three years old. (Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS via Getty Images)

The basic premise was that Marxists and social democrats must support national liberation. There were many Marxists, like Rosa Luxemburg or Nikolai Bukharin for a time, and others, who thought any and all forms of nationalism should be rejected. Lenin said, “No, nationalism is around, it’s part of the capitalist bourgeois stage of history, and we must recognize its power. Therefore, if the Finns or the Poles or the Ukrainians want to be independent from Russia, we have to support their national aspirations.” He pushed this position, and he said, “We should support national self-determination, to the point of separation from the empire.” This was a radical position in the movement.

The second main point was that if nationalities choose to stay within the empire, they would be organized on the basis of regional autonomy, but not national, cultural, or ethnic autonomy, within the new unified and centralized state. Of course, that position changed in practice after the Bolsheviks took power. The Soviet Union became the first country in the world, at least the first major country in the world, which adopted a constitution based on national territorial autonomy for Georgia, Armenia, Ukraine, etc. and a federal union of the states, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

But that was not the position in this pamphlet, or in Lenin’s earlier work. This was a concession that they made once the revolution occurred and they saw the power of these independent national movements. It was a strategy to gather them back into a Russian state.

Stalin was opposed to the views of others like the Georgian Mensheviks, or the Jewish Bund, or the Austro-Marxists, who argued for something that you can call “extraterritorial national cultural autonomy.” This would mean that citizens of the state carry their ethnicity and nationality around with them wherever they live in the state. So if you happen to live Brooklyn or in Ann Arbor, you still get to vote in your national curia back wherever you came from. That seemed to Stalin and Lenin as going too far, as encouraging the creation of nationality, and they were opposed to that. But eventually, they did concede that the new state would be organized on the basis of national, cultural, territorial autonomy — Armenians with their own republic, Ukrainians with theirs, and so on.

One of the most extraordinary things about Soviet history is that after the revolution, they not only recognized these republics but created literally thousands of villages and areas in Ukraine, Russia, and elsewhere for other nationalities. Let’s say you have a Jewish village in Ukraine somewhere, and there’s a majority of Jews there, and it’s fairly coherent. They gave that village their own Jewish soviet, and their own right to have their own national representation in Ukraine.

That’s extraordinary. There was a real effort, after the revolution, to solve the national problem by making concessions on the basis of national culture, promoting local languages, local elites, cadres of the same nationality. Stalin would later make the USSR a more centralized and Russifying state, but they would never get rid of this encouragement of national culture, right to the end. Of course, some people would say that was a mistake, because ultimately these republics fought against the central Soviet Union and became independent states.

Chris Maisano

The mainstream Georgian social democrats also wound up shifting their approach to the national question once they took power. They traditionally were not in favor of national territorial autonomy for Georgia but rather regional self-government within a larger Russian multinational state. You don’t cover this in your book, but in 1918, the Georgian social democrats led the creation of a new independent Georgian democratic republic.

We just marked the centenary of the Bolsheviks’ overthrow of this Democratic Republic of Georgia (DRG). What was the DRG? Why did the Bolsheviks overthrow it, and what role did Stalin play in the decision?

Ronald Suny

It’s a fascinating and tragic story. A path toward a different kind of socialism was thwarted and not allowed to develop. Georgian social democrats had various views. Some really wanted independence from the empire. Others wanted this extraterritorial national cultural autonomy. So there were debates within the movement, and before the revolution, Stalin fought against many of these kinds of things.

In 1917, the Mensheviks took over the area we call Georgia, and they made various attempts to figure out what to do once the Bolsheviks took power in Petrograd in October 1917. They tried a Caucasian federation. That didn’t work. Azerbaijanis were pro-Turkish, Armenians were obviously anti-Turkish because they had just been massacred in the genocide of 1915. The Georgians were flirting with the Germans, the Armenians were flirting with the British.

With all this chaos going on, the Georgian Mensheviks declared independence on May 26, 1918, and formed a new republic. Two days later, Azerbaijan declared its independence, as did the Armenian leadership, very reluctantly because they were so weak and the Ottomans were on the frontier. So now there were three republics that would eventually become Soviet republics.

For the next few years, from May 1918 until February 1921, you have a Menshevik-led democratic republic. It’s led by social democrats, but its policies are what you would call bourgeois democratic. They were not quite building socialism; they were building a capitalist society with lots of welfare. It’s a peasant-based society, it wasn’t really amenable yet to a Marxist socialism. Karl Kautsky, the great theorist of German social democracy, came to the country and wrote a book called Georgia: A Social-Democratic Peasant Republic, praising this democratic experiment.

Lenin flirted with recognizing and even making concessions to this republic. He thought it wasn’t necessarily an enemy of the Bolsheviks, that they could live with it. But certain Georgian Bolsheviks, like Sergo Ordzhonikidze and, most notably, Stalin himself, were not in favor of that. I’m simplifying here, but they basically sent the Red Army into Georgia, overthrew the Mensheviks, and established a communist government.

Lenin, reluctantly, recognized the Soviet takeover of Georgia. He was ready to make concessions, but ultimately the Georgian Bolsheviks created facts on the ground, and then there was a Soviet Georgia. The Mensheviks fled, first to Batumi on the Black Sea, then to France, where they maintained a government-in-exile for many decades.

Chris Maisano

Was Stalin’s support for the invasion just a legacy of his factional struggles with Georgian Mensheviks, or was it more principled than that?

Ronald Suny

Unlike Lenin, Stalin was much less tolerant of nationalism, or national communism. So he and Ordzhonikidze not only sent the army to get rid of the Mensheviks, but, for the next couple years, they fought against local Georgian national Bolsheviks, who wanted to have greater autonomy for Soviet Georgia. Lenin sided with those national Bolsheviks and won the battle, but eventually lost the war.

Stalin and Ordzhonikidze defeated those Georgian national Bolsheviks, and Georgia was integrated into the Transcaucasian Socialist Federative Soviet Republic, along with Armenia and Azerbaijan, which in turn were made part of the Soviet Union. Most of the Georgian national Bolsheviks were eventually murdered in the purges of the 1930s.

Stalin wanted a far more centralized Soviet Union with less autonomy for national groups. Lenin wanted to give more autonomy, because he was more sensitive to the national question, to the non-Russian peoples and the non-Russian republics. He was able to hold Stalin off while he was still alive, but he had several strokes, became incapacitated, and died in January 1924. Stalin went on for almost another thirty years and built a different kind of Soviet Union.

Chris Maisano

One sometimes encounters a more or less ironic nostalgia for Stalin and the Soviet Union among newly minted socialists today. You’ve dedicated your life to studying this history. What do you make of that impulse?

Ronald Suny

I think that’s a right-wing and very conservative if not reactionary impulse. Stalin was the gravedigger of the revolution. Or as Trotsky put it, a river of blood separated Lenin from Stalin. The revolution was made by ordinary people in 1917 — first women, who then called workers into the streets. Eventually, the soldiers went over to the crowds, and you had a revolution. Tsarism was gone. In 1917, there was a euphoria of popular participation, committees, resolutions, and so forth.

Ordinary people eventually have to go back home, make a living, take care of the kids, make dinner. Eventually, that democratic and participatory revolution was consumed by foreign intervention, the civil war, the breakdown of the economy, and the building, by the Bolsheviks, of a centralized, authoritarian state. If I write a second volume about Stalin, I’ll write about the period 1917 to the death of Lenin in 1924, about how the Soviet state was built, and how it turned from this more participatory, Paris Commune kind of ideal that you find in Lenin’s book State and Revolution into what eventually became a one-party state under Lenin, and eventually the Stalinist tyranny that destroyed most of the Leninist cadres in 1937.

There should be no apology by people on the Left for Stalin. It’s true, of course, that he achieved many things: a forced, and quite crude, but successful industrial revolution, the literacy campaigns, the victory over fascism, the destruction of Nazism, the end of the Holocaust. But Stalinism was the nadir of the Soviet experiment. It was a bloody, ruthless period. It destroyed many of the important achievements that were won earlier. It made the country stupider by decapitating the party and decapitating the intelligentsia, and turning people into cogs, or little screws, as Stalin put it.

Marxism and socialism are basically a democratic expansion of bourgeois liberal democracy. It’s the empowerment of ordinary people. Stalinism was the usurpation of power from the people, the decimation of the trade unions and the independence of ordinary people into a top-down dictatorship. Despite some of its achievements, it shouldn’t be celebrated.

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Ronald Suny is the William H. Sewell Jr. Distinguished University Professor of history at the University of Michigan, emeritus professor of political science and history at the University of Chicago, and senior researcher at the National Research University – Higher School of Economics in Saint Petersburg, Russia. His most recent book is Stalin: Passage to Revolution (2020).

Chris Maisano is a Jacobin contributing editor and a member of Democratic Socialists of America.

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