Matthew Klein: Some context for our chat with Stephen Kotkin about Stalin: "We recently had the chance to chat with Princeton historian Stephen Kotkin about the second volume of his biography of Joseph Stalin: Waiting for Hitler...
...The podcast will go live tomorrow, but we thought those who haven’t yet had the chance to read Paradoxes of Power — Kotkin’s first volume in the three-volume series — might appreciate a quick primer. There will also be a post on Monday covering material from Waiting for Hitler that we didn’t get a chance to discuss during our chat.
Kotkin’s core argument in Paradoxes of Power is that the first fifty years of Stalin’s life can be explained by his fanatical devotion to Marxist-Leninism, his intelligence, and his incredible work ethic.
(Kotkin expands this thesis in Waiting for Hitler by arguing that Stalin’s personality was warped by his long experience governing as a dictator.)
Stalin thought of Lenin as his teacher, a man who demonstrated by example how to relentlessly pursue his objectives despite seemingly overwhelming opposition. Stalin was the only senior party member who supported Lenin’s plan to launch the Bolshevik coup in November 1917. Lenin and Stalin found nothing inherently desirable about violence for its own sake, but as “principled” revolutionaries, they would always be willing to do whatever was needed to seize power and advance their agenda.
Stalin also absorbed his teacher’s ideology: Capitalists were the enemy. Bolshevism, because it was anticapitalist, would always be the target of aggression by every other country, in this worldview. Similarly, Stalin, along with the other true believers, worried about the danger of subversion by former capitalists who hadn’t been assimilated into the “proletariat”. Any independent source of authority or power was a threat, because it could be turned away from the Leninist party vanguard and potentially aid the capitalists.
Kotkin also makes it clear how intelligent Stalin was. Despite unremarkable origins, he was admitted to the seminary at Tiflis (now Tbilisi) and did well in his coursework. He also had modest early success as a poet. Most importantly, he was a voracious reader who absorbed what he learned. He spent his years in internal exile before 1917 studying history, international relations, and of course Marxist and Leninist theory.
This ties in with Stalin’s formidable work ethic. He was always the most prepared person in every meeting he attended. He stayed up late into the night reading memos on everything from foreign intelligence reports to aircraft designs to grain statistics, and took careful notes in blue pencil.
Kotkin argues Stalin was able to accumulate so much power in the 1920s because, unlike the other senior Bolsheviks — most obviously Trotsky — Stalin was willing to do the grunt work of administration. Instead of making grandiose speeches and writing pamphlets, Stalin sat in his office and made sure the young bureaucrats were being assigned to the right jobs and the technocratic holdovers from the Tsarist era were following orders.
This difference also helps explains the extreme animosity between Stalin and Trotsky. Trotsky (wrongly) thought Stalin was uncultured and lacked mastery of Marxist theory. Stalin thought Trotsky was a pompous blowhard who never did anything useful and dared to consider himself Lenin’s equal.
No one seriously resisted Stalin’s rise to preeminence in the 1920s after Lenin’s incapacitating strokes because it wasn’t clear who would handle the responsibilities of making the Party organisation work properly. Stalin was indispensable. This indispensability, when combined with Stalin’s skill at presenting himself as Lenin’s faithful pupil and the Bolsheviks’ inability to distinguish between disagreement and treason — another Leninist legacy — prevented the emergence of any coherent opposition.
Of course, if Stalin’s colleagues in the leadership had had any inkling of what was to come — such as their own forced confessions for treason and subsequent execution — they could have easily removed Stalin at any point in the 1920s. Stalin had offered to resign multiple times but was begged to stay.
Kotkin argues nobody feared Stalin because his despotic tendencies didn’t develop until much later. His personality was perfectly “normal” until the mid-1930s, and would have given no hint of his darker potential. Rather than something inherent in Stalin the man, the despotism, in Kotkin’s view, was a product of the system in which Stalin operated. It was the experience of wielding the power of life and death that changed Stalin from a brutal dictator into a capricious monster. (But that’s the story of Waiting of Hitler.)
By the start of Volume 2 in the late 1920s, Stalin felt comfortable enough in his position to take an enormous risk: he declared that the Soviet Union would enslave the peasants.
His word choice was a little different, but our characterisation captures the substance of what Stalin had in mind. Peasants would no longer own land, they would have no ability to leave the countryside, and (in the original plan) they would donate everything they produced above subsistence to the state. This was a new policy, but it was consistent with Bolshevik principles.
As you will hear Kotkin explain at the beginning of our conversation, the reintroduction of serfdom would have happened sooner had “Soviet power” been stronger. But Stalin realised that a few years of peace were needed to rebuild before the party had the resources to enforce its policies in the countryside.
The Russian Revolution was not a single event. To oversimplify, there was an urban/industrial revolution, eventually resulting in the Soviet Union run by the Bolsheviks, and there was a peasant revolution that led to land redistribution from the aristocratic magnates to the farmers who actually worked the land. The revolution in the countryside, not the Bolshevik coup, was the event that affected the large majority of the population.
The Bolsheviks had won the civil war and consolidated their power in the cities by the early 1920s, but their regime was fragile. Trotsky’s diplomacy with Germany at the end of WWI had been a disaster, leading to large territorial losses. The USSR lost additional territory, and men, after being defeated in battle by newly-independent Poland. Disease and famine in the early 1920s were extreme.
Lenin concluded they should therefore make (temporary) peace with the peasants and allow “capitalism” in the countryside. This “New Economic Policy”, which was vehemently opposed by Trotsky and other members of the so-called “left opposition”, was considered the domestic equivalent of the Brest-Litovsk treaty — a humiliating but necessary measure to allow the new socialist state time to develop.
As with Eastern Europe, the expectation was that the Soviets would make revisions to this “agreement” once the correlation of forces had changed. By the time Stalin decided to act, the debate was about whether the Bolsheviks had the resources to subdue the countryside. Sceptics, such as Bukharin, did not disagree about whether collectivisation was the right thing to do but about the ability of the Soviet regime to pull it off at the end of the 1920s.
(Mass starvation does not mean the sceptics were “right” in any meaningful sense, since they shared Stalin’s belief that private property in the countryside was inherently bad and had to be abolished.)
There is lots more in Paradoxes of Power, but this should get you up to speed for our chat.