Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

June 19, 2018

Commentary on Sovietologist Stephen Kotkin

Filed under: Stalinism — louisproyect @ 4:17 pm

Two days ago, I was invited by an old Bardian (literally and figuratively) to comment on the lecture above given by Stephen Kotkin to the National History Center at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington:

Take the time to listen to and watch this video in its entirety.

It deals with the Soviet Union and Communism, Socialism, Fascism, the “Popular Front” in the Spanish Civil War, the Russian Finish Winter War, the Russian Japanese War war and the latter’s influence on Stalin’s invasion of Poland, the personalities of Stalin and Hitler as different types of gamblers, and many other topics.

Needless to say, these are questions that I have dealt with for the past half-century but from a different perspective than Kotkin, who is a Sovietologist in the mode of Richard Pipes, Adam Ulam, Robert Conquest, Martin Malia, et al. I confess to having never read a Sovietologist except for Stephen F. Cohen, who taught at Princeton like Kotkin. Although not a Marxist, Cohen was a scrupulous scholar, even being asked to be a witness for the SWP in its suit against the FBI in the 1970s. I was at the trial when Cohen told Judge Griesa that the Russian Revolution was backed by the overwhelming majority of the population and not a violent coup.

Kotkin, on the other hand, has referred to it in v. 1 of his biography of Josef Stalin, “Stalin: Paradoxes of Power, 1878-1928”, as “the Bolshevik putsch”; “the Bolshevik October 1917 coup, nominally against the Provisional Government but really against the Soviet”; “the far-fetched Bolshevik coup”; “this crazy putsch”; and “Lenin’s shock coup of 1917”. These are references from a four-part critique of v. 1 on the World Socialist Web Site, a group I have little use for except for its film reviews and its commentary on Sovietology.

Kotkin was at the National History Center to discuss v. 2 of the biography titled “Stalin: Waiting for Hitler, 1929-1941”. This is a period I am pretty familiar with, having written at some length about the famine in Ukraine caused by Stalin’s forced collectivization, the joint occupation of Poland by Hitler and Stalin in 1940, the Spanish Civil War, etc. My views are largely influenced by what Leon Trotsky has written but not uncritically. In his debates with Max Shachtman and James Burnham in the late 30s prompted to a large extent by Stalin’s foreign policy during the non-aggression pact with Nazi Germany, Trotsky tended to bend the stick against Shachtman and Burnham who he considered to be reflecting anti-Communist prejudices. As it turns out, they would both eventually become Cold Warriors but in 1938 Trotsky was not clear enough about the rights of Poland and Finland vis-à-vis the USSR when he wrote:

Under the conditions of World War, to approach the question of the fate of small states from the standpoint of “national independence,” “neutrality,” etc., is to remain in the sphere of imperialist mythology.

I would not have put it this way myself, especially in light of the Katyn Massacre.

I suspect that Kotkin reprised some of the analysis in v. 1 of his biography since he begins his lecture by challenging Trotsky’s assessment of Stalin as an “outstanding mediocrity”. For Kotkin, Stalin was a Bolshevik with “surpassing organizational abilities; a mammoth appetite for work; a strategic mind and an unscrupulousness that recalled his master teacher, Lenin.” In keeping with Sovietologist norms, Kotkin views Stalin as Lenin’s heir. As there is a red stain of “unscrupulousness” that runs through Marx to Lenin to Stalin, we are advised to be staunch anti-Communists in order to preserve capitalism freedom in the USA even though it is destroying the water we drink and the air we breathe.

Since Lenin supposedly imposed a coup in October, 1917 in defiance of the majority of Russians, naturally that inspired Stalin to use dictatorial methods to retain power. While I do not have plans to read anything that Kotkin has written, I would be curious to see how he explains away Stalin’s opposition to taking power in October, 1917, seeing Kerensky’s Provisional Government as the legitimate expression of democracy in Russia, just like Kotkin.

To make the case for Lenin being Stalin’s ideological godfather, Kotkin has to account for Lenin’s Testament that stated:

Stalin is too rude and this defect, although quite tolerable in our midst and in dealing among us Communists, becomes intolerable in a Secretary-General. That is why I suggest that the comrades think about a way of removing Stalin from that post and appointing another man in his stead who in all other respects differs from Comrade Stalin in having only one advantage, namely, that of being more tolerant, more loyal, more polite and more considerate to the comrades, less capricious, etc.

Kotkin believes these sentences were forged since Lenin must have been too ill to have written them. Fellow Sovietologist Richard Pipes, who was much less impressed with Stalin than Kotkin, defended the authenticity of the Testament in a NY Review article on v. 1 of Kotkin’s bio that is fortunately not behind a paywall. He reminds his readers that Lenin’s disavowal of Stalin did not come out of the blue. He had grown increasingly alarmed over Stalin’s rudeness, especially when it came to his wife:

In January 1923 another incident occurred that further alienated Lenin from Stalin. Lenin congratulated Trotsky for having won a battle over foreign trade. Stalin promptly learned of this communication. He telephoned Nadezhda Krupskaya, Lenin’s wife, rudely criticized her for “informing Lenin about party and state affairs” in violation of the rules he had established, and threatened her with an investigation. Having hung up the phone, Krupskaya became hysterical, sobbing and rolling on the floor. When he learned of this incident several months later, Lenin sent Stalin the following note:

Respected Comrade Stalin!

You had the rudeness to telephone my wife and abuse her. Although she had told you of her willingness to forget what you had said…I have no intention of forgetting so easily what is done against me, and, needless to say, I consider whatever is done to my wife to be directed also against myself. For this reason I request you to inform me whether you agree to retract what you have said and apologize, or prefer a breach of relations between us.

Most of Kotkin’s talk was taken up with a discussion of the USSR’s relations to Germany that were supposedly proof of Stalin’s foreign policy deftness. As part of Stalin’s “socialism in one country” doctrine, the October revolution was only possible because of WWI. Without the millions lost in the trenches, class peace would have prevailed. So, he developed the brilliant insight that only a new world war would recreate such conditions and make socialist revolution feasible once again. In practical terms, this meant driving an even bigger wedge between Germany and the WWI than pre-existing one that grew out of the punishing terms of the Treaty of Versailles. This was a precondition for a new world war that would trigger socialist revolution. This is nearly as insane as the Argentine Trotskyist Posada advocating that the USSR launch a first strike nuclear attack on the U.S. so that socialism could emerge out of the radioactive rubble.

Missing from Kotkin’s dubious analysis is an engagement with the class basis of a Germany-USSR alliance. This is fresh in my mind since I have recently been reading about Paul Levi, a German Communist leader who opposed the Comintern’s reckless support for the seizure of power in Germany in 1921 in isolation from the Socialist Party that had majority support in the working class. Levi instead advocated an alliance between Germany and the USSR based on a revolutionary internationalist program. A workers government made up of a bloc between the SP and the CP in Germany would create what amounted to a leftist trade bloc that would exchange German machinery and expertise for Soviet oil and grain. This is what the 1922 Treaty of Rapallo was intended to carry out.

Any resemblance between the Treaty of Rapallo and the Ribbentrop-Molotov nonaggression pace is purely coincidental, even though Kotkin spends much of his talk trying to equate them. Nazi Germany was the outcome of the overthrow of the Socialist-led Weimar Republic. While the USSR had every right to negotiate non-aggression pacts with any state power on the planet, it only turned to Adolf Hitler when attempts to form a bloc with the democracies failed. This was made clear in 2008 when a trove of secret Kremlin documents were uncovered as the London Telegraph reported:

Papers which were kept secret for almost 70 years show that the Soviet Union proposed sending a powerful military force in an effort to entice Britain and France into an anti-Nazi alliance.

Such an agreement could have changed the course of 20th century history, preventing Hitler’s pact with Stalin which gave him free rein to go to war with Germany’s other neighbours.

The offer of a military force to help contain Hitler was made by a senior Soviet military delegation at a Kremlin meeting with senior British and French officers, two weeks before war broke out in 1939.

The new documents, copies of which have been seen by The Sunday Telegraph, show the vast numbers of infantry, artillery and airborne forces which Stalin’s generals said could be dispatched, if Polish objections to the Red Army crossing its territory could first be overcome.

But the British and French side – briefed by their governments to talk, but not authorised to commit to binding deals – did not respond to the Soviet offer, made on August 15, 1939. Instead, Stalin turned to Germany, signing the notorious non-aggression treaty with Hitler barely a week later.

The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, named after the foreign secretaries of the two countries, came on August 23 – just a week before Nazi Germany attacked Poland, thereby sparking the outbreak of the war. But it would never have happened if Stalin’s offer of a western alliance had been accepted, according to retired Russian foreign intelligence service Major General Lev Sotskov, who sorted the 700 pages of declassified documents.

“This was the final chance to slay the wolf, even after [British Conservative prime minister Neville] Chamberlain and the French had given up Czechoslovakia to German aggression the previous year in the Munich Agreement,” said Gen Sotskov, 75.

I suppose that Kotkin might have characterized such documents as being forged, just like Lenin’s Testament, but I don’t have plans to read his book to find out.

For Kotkin, Stalin’s non-aggression pact was just one more example of his strategic adroitness. It showed that rather than being an “outstanding mediocrity”, he was as canny as Henry Kissinger or Klemens von Metternich except in the interests of communism rather than capitalist empire. Despite a fleeting reference to the Moscow trials that decapitated the Soviet military command, Kotkin denies that Stalin trusted Hitler to comply with the terms of the non-aggression pact. That’s quite a mouthful.

To prove that Stalin was ever-vigilant, Kotkin refers to an obscure battle that took place in the Soviet-controlled half of Poland in 1940 when Nazi troops encroached across the borderline. After Hitler refused to withdraw them, Stalin dispatched the Red Army to drive them back. So how could anybody capable of being so resolute be accused of being gullible?

Even if such a battle took place, it is hardly important enough to overcome the logical conclusion that Stalin did trust Hitler to abide by the treaty. What else would explain Stalin’s refusal to believe his own top spy’s insistence that Nazi Germany was about to launch Operation Barbarossa? Just six weeks before the invasion, Pavel Fitin, the head of N.K.V.D. foreign intelligence, informed Stalin that it was about to happen. Stalin’s reaction? He told Fitin that “You can send your ‘source’ from the headquarters of German aviation to his fucking mother. This is not a source but a disinformationist.”

Stalin also ignored Richard Sorge, who was the USSR’s master spy. When he learned of Operation Barbarossa, Sorge reported to Moscow on May 3, 1941: “Berlin informed Ott that German attack will commence in the latter part of June. Ott 95 percent certain war will commence.” And then on June 20, 1941, Sorge reported once again: “Ott told me that war between Germany and the USSR is inevitable…. Invest [the code name for Ozaki] told me that the Japanese General Staff is already discussing what position to take in the event of war.” Wikipedia states that Moscow received the reports, but ultimately Joseph Stalin and other top leaders ignored Sorge’s warnings, as well as those of other sources.

An outstanding mediocrity? That would be far too generous. Stalin was a curse on socialism and it really says something when a distinguished Sovietologist can’t recognize that. Or perhaps, more accurately, he does recognize that and hopes to burnish a reputation of someone who was largely responsible for the collapse of socialism in the 20th century, an outcome in sync with Ivy League Russian Studies Department ideals.


  1. There’s a whole industry of these “scholarly” frauds lying outright about Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, and the Bolshevik Revolution–especially with the military coup nonsense, which is so contrary to the actual facts as to make virtually no sense. Pipes stands in all respects outside every canon of decency and veracity–apparently Kotkin is another chip off the block. The British universities are spilling over with these characters. Every other week it seems the BBC has another breathless documentary expose on the subject.

    When you consider the undeniable ability and intelligence of these villains, the word “sinister” hardly suffices to describe them. Their contempt for the intellect of their audience is mindblowing–the destructiveness of their deliberate historial fakery even more incredible in its way than the ecstatic mendacity of Trump.

    We think too little nowadays about the academic cult of Platonic wisdom–the near-universal belief (or tendency to assert) among the tenured at places like Harvard that the polloi can’t handle the truth and have to be lied to for their own good by the Wise.

    One thing is certain–this did not die, alas, with the unlamented Leo Strauss. He codified something that is essential to the elitist project of modern academia as a whole and that tarnishes and taints almost everyone and everything that comes into contact with it.

    In my opinion, it will never die until the denizens of those places are denied wine, cheese, and student nookie for as long as it takes them to learn how to clean toilets thoroughly, sweep streets, handle garbage, and deeply repent of their innumerable falsehoods.

    If there’s anything good about “David North” and the SEP (and I’m not a fan) it’s that–in addition to some decent film reviews–the WSWS have as in the present instance published some decent stuff about this amid the welter of conspiracist bullshit.

    I was “turned on” to Rabinowitch’s work on the Bolshevik rise to power by a reference on WSWS and still think this was a good lead. Go figure.

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — June 20, 2018 @ 6:26 pm

  2. For a materialist critique of Kotkin see https://mltoday.com/stalin-s-ghost-haunts-capitalism/

    Comment by Student 27 — June 21, 2018 @ 1:00 am

  3. An article that includes multiple references to Grover Furr does not pass the smell test.

    Comment by louisproyect — June 21, 2018 @ 5:01 pm

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