Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

August 21, 2016

The Dictator, The Revolution, the Machine: a Political Account of Joseph Stalin

Filed under: Stalinism — louisproyect @ 10:46 pm

Tony McKenna is a bona fide public intellectual who contributes to Marxist journals without having any connections to academia or to the disorganized left. This gives his writing a freshness both in terms of political insight and literary panache. I first encountered his work in a collection of articles titled “Art, Literature and Culture From a Marxist Perspective” that reflected a familiarity with culture high and low and an ability to put works such as “The Walking Dead” into a broader political and social context. Was the popular AMC zombie show a good preparation for “The Dictator, The Revolution, the Machine: a Political Account of Joseph Stalin”, his latest book forthcoming from Sussex press? I’d like to think so.

Although I think that McKenna would be capable of turning a Unix instruction manual into compelling prose, the dead tyrant has spurred him to reach a higher level—one that is in inverse proportion to the degraded subject matter. At 186 pages, his study is both an excellent introduction to Stalin and Stalinism as well as one that gives any veteran radical well-acquainted with Soviet history some food for thought on the quandaries facing the left today. Drawing upon fifty or so books, including a number that leftist veterans would likely not be familiar with such as leading Soviet military leader Gregory Zhukov’s memoir, McKenna synthesizes it all into a highly readable and often dramatic whole with his own unique voice. It is a model of historiography and one that might be read for no other reason except learning how to write well. (McKenna is an editor and an aspiring novelist.)

Among the motivations given for writing such a book in the preface, McKenna refers to an interview featuring “a cultural commentator of the left.” (I am pretty sure you can guess who this is.) Since an image of Stalin accompanied the interview, McKenna was prompted to consider the implications: “Now, if this same person had been snapped before a picture of Adolph Hitler – Stalin’s contemporary and fellow student of mass murder – there would have been, I suspect, a universal clamour of outrage, and quite rightly so. But the fact that he was posing before a picture of Stalin went rather unremarked upon, at least on the part of the left.”

While reminding young activists, especially those with misplaced USSR nostalgia, about how Stalin’s record violated the fundamental principles of socialism, the overarching need for such a book is to help us understand why class exploitation is deeper now than it has been since the Great Depression. In the movement that developed against the “one percent”, it is useful to understand how the capitalist class got a free hand in pushing the economic program of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher to the hilt and that held sway in 2011. When “state socialism” became discredited and so dysfunctional in the 1980s that working people rose up to dismantle it, often under the leadership of former Soviet officials who hoped to impose Milton Friedman’s economics on an unsuspecting nation, there is a need to get to the roots of how this turn of events was possible. As McKenna makes abundantly clear, this was a function of the infant Soviet republic’s weaknesses that were deepened by an imperialist invasion and Stalin’s adroit ability to exploit them to his own bureaucratic advantage. A degenerated bureaucratic system simply lacked the leadership to inspire and guide revolutionary movements in Spain, Germany and elsewhere. It is a depressing tale but one utterly necessary to absorb.

Using that part of his brain that feeds off of his novel-writing ambitions, McKenna hones in on Stalin’s character development. If you are going to write about a villain, you need to render his or her psychological complexity. That is the difference between Melville’s portrait of Captain Ahab and 98 percent of the novels on display in airport bookstores except, of course, for Stephen King.

Joseph Stalin was a product of Georgian peasant culture, a proud and ancient civilization that has been dominated by Russia for centuries both under Czars and the Kremlin, including both under Stalin and under the capitalist “reformers” who have prevailed since 1990. A product of extremely repressive seminaries, Stalin rebelled against his background and searched for any trends in opposition to the stifling status quo. For youths over the past 150 years, this has often led to Marxism.

In Stalin’s case, the materialist strain in Marxism was most welcome since it was the dialectical opposite of the Christian theology being forced down his throat. But without a broader cultural leavening, such materialism can often devolve into a vulgar Marxism in which the entire world is reduced to base economic motives and self-interest. McKenna writes:

In Stalin, then, an intransigent, faithless materialism was first translated into the ideological contours of a Marxism which preserved the flavour of a religious scholasticism albeit one voided of God; such a political education was then crowned by a first-hand masterclass delivered by the authorities on the mechanics of repression. How to exert pressure when required or how to maintain a secretive and implacable demeanour, to cajole and flatter, while seeking to undermine – all in the pursuit of a brutal naked control.

Most of us who have a modicum of familiarity with Stalin’s career know that he was involved with bank robberies to help fund the Bolsheviks. But the facts are that he never participated in the robberies themselves; he only orchestrated them. This was consistent with his tendency to remain in the background where he was more comfortable. When debates were taking place about revolutionary perspectives following the 1905 revolutionary dress rehearsal, Stalin not only became restless but felt alienated from the working class movement itself. It was too disorderly and unpredictable. Stalin always had a preference for order, even if it was to be imposed from above.

The disdain for the mass movement was a hallmark of Stalin’s career in the Bolshevik party. Never a leader of the working class after the fashion of Zinoviev or Kamenev, his preference was managing internal party affairs, a role that would prepare him ideally for the retreat of the mass movement in the aftermath of the Russian civil war.

When he became Commissar of Nationalities in 1918, he took the steps that alienated Ukrainians and that led to the smoldering resistance that both sapped the Soviet Union’s defense as well as thwarting the possibility of a revolutionary Ukraine that would stand shoulder to shoulder with other Soviet republics. Although Lenin’s policy was not without its flaws, they were far better than those of Stalin who remarked dismissively of Ukrainian aspirations: “Enough playing at a government and a republic. It’s time to stop that game; enough is enough.”

Within seven years, the growing strength of the bureaucracy, the failure of socialist revolutions to triumph in Western Europe, and the general exhaustion of the most conscious ranks of the working class created a framework for the triumph of Stalinism and the adoption of “socialism in one country”. In describing this process, McKenna uses an analogy that both describes its inner logic and displays his literary imagination:

In the natural world there are several species of wasp that have happened upon a unique incubation system for their young. The adult insect waits until it finds another creature – a fat, healthy caterpillar, for example – before stinging its target, and secreting its egg inside the caterpillar’s body. The egg, over time, hatches, and the larva begins to develop, gorging itself on the healthy, pliant flesh of its host; effectively consuming the creature from the inside out. First the non- essential organs are nuzzled upon, and then, eventually, the larva works its way through the caterpillar’s fundaments, until what is left is merely the husk of the former creature, barely clinging to life, before the fledgling wasp bursts out through the shell of its body destroying it once and for all. The bureaucratic tendency within the Bolshevik Party was so powerful, was so resilient, for it developed in much this way – incubated in the life forces of the party itself, emerging from the inside out, enfeebling its host, draining it of its resources.

In the conclusion to “The Dictator, The Revolution, the Machine” there is an analysis that to my knowledge has never been advanced before. While most writing on Stalin and Stalinism are focused on the USSR and its retrograde impact on the world revolutionary movement, McKenna takes a step back and puts into the context of the challenges standing in the way of making a socialist revolution. In essence, the analysis evokes Gramsci’s observation that “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born.”

In the conclusion McKenna grapples with the disappointment the left experienced when Syriza capitulated to European bankers and when Jeremy Corbyn failed to use his power as Labour Party leader to force his MP’s to vote against the Conservative Party’s motion to take military action against ISIS in Syria. These defaults of leadership prompted him to summarize that “In both cases the decisions that were finally enacted favoured the proclivities of a small elite; the modes and forms of democracy, then, had proved to be profoundly undemocratic.”

Why was the will of the majority thwarted in each case? Why do politicians continuously disregard the wishes of those who elect them? For McKenna, the key to understanding this is within the nature of representative democracy, a form of government that we tend to forget as a legacy of the bourgeois revolutions.

We are, through the very forms and structures of social existence, acculturated into the belief that the essence of democracy – the only possible kind of democracy – consists in voting for a selection of besuited, immaculate wealthy figures whose discussions about our future take place in vast regal buildings fortified by every level of security. Such individuals and groups are elected every four or so years to act as our political guardians, but their lives and their interests seem so remote from our own. And yet, it seems to us this is what democracy truly is.

This was a departure from the original understanding of democracy that existed in Athens under Pericles. Even if there was slavery and many other abuses, there was rule by the people (demos) that prefigured Marx’s largely misunderstood or outright misrepresented dictatorship of the proletariat.

By effectively destroying Soviet democracy, Stalin made it possible for bourgeois democracy to get a new lease on life. Without mentioning Gramsci, McKenna virtually quotes him at the end of this passage that occurs close to the end of his book:

The single, underlying motivation of this book has been the attempt to show that Stalinism was the product of the clash between the forms of an old world and the possibilities of a new one. The workers’ democracy carried the form of a new society latent within the womb of the old order, and for this reason, those classes whose social power was predicated on the exploitation of labour by capital, both nationally and internationally, recognized in it the germ of their own dissolution. Thus they hastened to perform the most bloody, back alley abortion; they sought to mutilate the developing democracy in utero so to speak, and like the titan Cronus hungrily devouring his son, they hoped to put off in perpetuity the historical moment of their own usurpation. It was a critical juncture indeed; the old world was, in a fundamental sense, dying – but the new one was not yet developed enough to fully force its way into the light.

Of course all this leads to the inevitable question of what is to be done. Familiar with the Trotskyist movement that made rejection of Stalinism the centerpiece of its program, McKenna finds it wanting even though much of his analysis is based on Trotsky’s writings, as well as that of Isaac Deutscher, the most respected defender of his ideas outside the ranks of the Fourth International.

What kind of party do we need? What are the parameters of its program? Who are its allies? What is the kind of global framework that will advance the cause of worldwide revolution, the perspective advanced by Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky that Stalin rejected?

If I may be permitted to offer my own views, I would argue that a new approach to revolutionary struggle must be adopted, one that is much more in sync with that understood by the movement’s founders. While often seen as a second fiddle to Marx, I think that Engels summed up the need perfectly in an 1847 article titled “The Principles of Communism” that was structured as replies to various questions, including “Will it be possible for this revolution to take place in one country alone?” Engels’s reply:

No. By creating the world market, big industry has already brought all the peoples of the Earth, and especially the civilized peoples, into such close relation with one another that none is independent of what happens to the others.

Further, it has co-ordinated the social development of the civilized countries to such an extent that, in all of them, bourgeoisie and proletariat have become the decisive classes, and the struggle between them the great struggle of the day. It follows that the communist revolution will not merely be a national phenomenon but must take place simultaneously in all civilized countries – that is to say, at least in England, America, France, and Germany.

It will develop in each of these countries more or less rapidly, according as one country or the other has a more developed industry, greater wealth, a more significant mass of productive forces. Hence, it will go slowest and will meet most obstacles in Germany, most rapidly and with the fewest difficulties in England. It will have a powerful impact on the other countries of the world, and will radically alter the course of development which they have followed up to now, while greatly stepping up its pace.

It is a universal revolution and will, accordingly, have a universal range.

While it is unlikely that the final struggle will take place in my lifetime, I am positive that capitalism has entered a critical phase when those nations that Engels refers to as “civilized” will be reaching such a barbaric stage that working people will be forced into collective action spanning borders for the simple reason that the existing social system will have become an existential threat. The constant harping on borders, the rise of fascist-like movements from the USA to Hungary, the growing assaults on the environment, the threat of nuclear war, nihilistic terrorist attacks fed by desperation, and a thousand other threats to humanity and the natural world lead to a call for action. Under such conditions, we must build a movement that is hostile to the “organization men” like Stalin and that attracts the best of the class-conscious working class fighters. As a matter of fact, that is exactly what Lenin advocated in “What is to be Done”.


  1. I haven’t read any of the Stalin biographies. Has there ever been a clear explanation as to why he became a Bolshevik in the first place, as opposed to a Menshevik or a non-aligned member of the RSDLP? Was he simply convinced of Lenin’s theory of the worker-peasant class alliance that would make the Russian bourgeois-democratic Revolution as opposed to the Mensheviks’ worker-bourgeois alliance theory?

    Comment by jschulman — August 22, 2016 @ 2:16 am

  2. Well, McKenna doesn’t get into this at all. My guess is that Lenin had been grooming him as a leader from an early age. Lenin’s decisions were frequently questionable.

    Comment by louisproyect — August 22, 2016 @ 12:55 pm

  3. Does he offer any insights that you believe might go past Deutscher’s evaluations of Stalin?

    Comment by Michael Hureaux — August 22, 2016 @ 3:12 pm

  4. I have never read Deutscher’s bio of Stalin but McKenna’s draws upon a number of different sources (Deutscher, Medvedev, et al) so it more inclusive. I am certain, however, that McKenna does not give Stalin the kind of leeway that Deutscher did. I have little use for Cannon’s rant against Deutscher but I am inclined to be a lot more critical of Stalin. Deutscher’s views were shaped by the triumphal period of Stalinism, the victory over Hitler, etc. I doubt he would write the same kind of bio today.

    Comment by louisproyect — August 22, 2016 @ 3:17 pm

  5. “Why was the will of the majority thwarted in each case? Why do politicians continuously disregard the wishes of those who elect them? For McKenna, the key to understanding this is within the nature of representative democracy, a form of government that we tend to forget as a legacy of the bourgeois revolutions.

    We are, through the very forms and structures of social existence, acculturated into the belief that the essence of democracy – the only possible kind of democracy – consists in voting for a selection of besuited, immaculate wealthy figures whose discussions about our future take place in vast regal buildings fortified by every level of security. Such individuals and groups are elected every four or so years to act as our political guardians, but their lives and their interests seem so remote from our own. And yet, it seems to us this is what democracy truly is.

    This was a departure from the original understanding of democracy that existed in Athens under Pericles. Even if there was slavery and many other abuses, there was rule by the people (demos) that prefigured Marx’s largely misunderstood or outright misrepresented dictatorship of the proletariat.”

    A central concern of anarchist thought and action has been the destruction of this kind of representative democracy. While some may consider it a dry subject, anarchists, and people like Murray Bookchin, who self-identified as an anarchist for much of his life, have spent a great deal of time theorizing as to possible alternatives, such as Bookchin’s communalism:


    Kropotkin had his own vision which he presented in “The Conquest of Bread”, among other works.

    What is the relevance to Stalin and the current situation? Without such an alternative vision of production and participation in economic and political social life, liberal representative democracy and the bureaucracy that it creates fills the void. In the case of Stalin, he was able to create a uniquely ruthless bureaucracy because of the lack of representative democracy, even within the party, as the events of 1926-1927 demonstrated. As a consequence, the party and the bureaucracy became almost synonymous, as explained by Orlando Figes in “The Whisperers”, with Stalin directing it to carry out his repressive objectives.

    Mao could be an interesting study in contrasts because he recognized the perils of such bureaucratization while relying upon it to consolidate his power. Unable to square the circle, and frustrated by his reliance upon “organization men” like Deng Xiaoping, Liu Shaoqi and others involved in agricultural policy in the early 1960s, he unleashed the furies of the Cultural Revolution, clearing the ground for the neoliberalism pursued after his death. An epic example of the concept of ‘dialectical irony’ described by Lefebvre.

    Comment by Richard Estes — August 22, 2016 @ 5:03 pm

  6. I just read through Cannon’s response to Deutscher. Cannon did not even try to engage with Deutscher’s critique of what he called the Bolshevik party’s substitutionism during the civil war period. Deutscher believed he saw in the party’s efforts to speak over the heads of the workers the roots of Stalin’s course, not without good reason, as we know. Deutscher’s critique of that period is methodical, unlike cannon’s critique of Deutscher. Deutscher of course bent the stick too far to the left when he believed Stalin’s troops to be “carrying revolution into Eastern Europe on the point of its bayonets”. Even so, such an idea was not very far down the road from the idea of Lenin and Trotsky that such a course could be pursued in Poland 25 years before.

    Cannon, myopically focused on the creation of the 4th international, clearly resented Deutscher’s summation of the effort to build the 4th effort “stillborn”. Too bad. What Deutscher was actually attempting to do was help communist/marxist opposition to Stalin find some nuance, and in that sense, I think his work succeeded admirably. No one who knows his work could ever say he was unsympathetic to Trotsky’s purpose, but as historian, he was intrigued with the manner in which Trotsky’s inability to separate the personalities of people from their politics frequently got in his own way. Trotsky’s wretched bio of Stalin, indeed, many places in his autobiography are prime examples of where his poetic liberties outpaced his marxist analysis.

    Deutscher’s work puts a little more foundation under the critique friendly critics of Trotsky like clr James, Raya dunayaevskaya and grace and Jimmy Boggs put forward. Much of Trotsky’s time was wasted making predictions of where the Soviet state would go by clearly delineated time references; predictions of things which The Stalin era did not do;the most notorious of which was Trotsky’s prognosis that if the Soviet masses did not remove Stalin, they could never defeat Hitler. Deutscher charted concrete developments Within Russian history prior to the rise of the Bolsheviks, mass peasant trends like the Narodniks which of due course assumed new shape and form and asserted themselves within Soviet life. Deutscher implies in his writings that These national peculiarities were things Trotsky did not understand, and this was one of the many reasons why Stalin was able to run circles around him in both the bureaucratic and the public debate.

    Nowhere was this more clear then in Trotsky’s insistence that Lenin wrote Stalin’s pamphlet on the national question. Even the most superficial glance at Stalin’s overall writing will tell the reader who wrote the paper on nations and self determination, and it wasn’t Lenin. If we can see it now, be very sure the Soviet worker could see it then. As Nello remarked to the 4th Intnl in his Notes on Dialectics, “do not say the workers are deceived. you are deceived”. And as Stalin himself once slyly remarked, in one of his able back hands to the Trotskyist opposition in his Thoughts on styles of Leninist leadership, the issues weren’t issues of literary style. Trotsky never understood – or never wanted to understand- he had been out maneuvered by a back country Ward heel. That is the essence in the conflict between both these men that Deutscher captures in his his writings, and that is what rankled Cannon. with all of his championing of Trotsky, Deutscher could play the role of dialectic in and write about that living contradiction. Cannon, near as I can tell,never could.

    To me, CLR James summed it up very neatly when he said that the period of Stalin was reasonable because it was real. Deutscher, James, Cannon, , whoever, until the left deals with the peculiarities of cultural, national and regional character in the construction of any socialist revolution and the shape those have taken in the revolutions of the last 100 years, , the left can rail against authoritarian trends all it wants to. There will be no unity or victory possible until those details are attended to. Deutscher, for all his inadequacies, actively engaged with this difficult question in a manner uncommon to those writers associated with Trotsky’s legacy in his day. That’s why I recommend his work.

    Comment by Michael Hureaux — August 23, 2016 @ 7:57 pm

  7. […] titled “The Dictator, The Revolution, The Machine: A Political Account of Joseph Stalin” that I reviewed on August 21, 2016 and that will be available later this […]

    Pingback by Is anything worth salvaging from the USSR’s legacy? | Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — October 13, 2016 @ 8:53 pm

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